General 7-1-2005

Steady as They Go

The Hold Steady bring a distinctly Midwestern voice to the New York rock scene


Separation Sunday

The Hold Steady

French Kiss

Craig Finn pronounces the word “Minneapolis” better than anyone.

This always came as a surprise to fans of his former band, the defunct and storied Lifter Puller, because Finn’s voice—a spoken-word style of forced dorkiness originating largely from the nasal cavity—is, by most accounts, pretty awful. Certainly nothing you’d listen to on purpose.

But the city’s moniker, a serendipitous coupling of Dakota and Greek, is built with such an array of vowels, fanned out among delicate labial consonants, that it becomes a jungle gym for the jaw. And like a good Midwesterner, Finn delivers it slowly—Minn-ee-aa-poe-lis—chewing on it, savoring every bite, nodding along like there’s a story bursting from every syllable. And for him, there is—his new band, the Hold Steady, isn’t even based in Minnesota (they’re a critically admired, commercially unappreciated part of the New York rock renaissance), but on their second album, Minneapolis is still all Finn can talk about.

For the sake of the band’s ego I’ll point out that the Hold Steady isn’t a Lifter Puller facsimile. On Separation Sunday, the riffs are better, the themes (sex, drugs, and religion) are more interesting, the band is tighter, and the addition of keyboards, saxophones and back-up singers is as pleasant, in a Springsteen sort of way, as it is unexpected. But some things never change, and Finn still goes way, way out of his way to name check his old haunts. Like when he recounts a teenage girl’s riverfront escapades on “Stevie Nix,” Separation Sunday’s best track; the meter of the song leaves the singer one, maybe two syllables to name his watery setting. But rather than settle with “the James” or “the Hudson” as a true New Yorker might, the ambitious locutor opts for “the Mississippi River,” a mighty mouthful that’s never done a lyric writer any favors. What’s more, Finn spits the words out like they were cigarette butts floating in his Grain Belt bottle, with a level of exasperation he’s never shown before. “She got high for the first time in the camps…down by the banks…of the Mississippi River,” he sings, his phrasing out of time, his lungs out of breath. All in the name of a town that his now-local fans have probably never seen.

But what else is a Midwestern ex-pat in New York to do? The Hold Steady’s tales are born out of Finn’s aimless years in Minnesota, and he’s helpless to alter that. Which, being a Twin Citian myself, is cool with me—Lifter Puller painted a picture of the city that we were proud of, and then exhibited it to the rest of the country. The fact that the Hold Steady is a New York group that can’t help but spin a few yarns about our little corner of the world only further strokes our egos. But we’re not the only ones enjoying this stuff. Separation Sunday has universal appeal, both in style—the instrumentation is crisp and measured, while managing to maintain its great boozy stink—and in substance. The Decemberists bedamned, Craig Finn is the best writer of fictions in indie rock.

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