It’s October 2007 and it’s a time of change for me. I’d recently come out of a medium-term relationship, my career was stagnating and I spent a Saturday evening with a drunken and bullish jazz musician friend once again declaring at great length that because I prefer rock and roll to the stuff he makes a living playing, I therefore knew nothing about music. My counter argument was, of all forms of popular music, rock’s ability to assimilate other styles actually makes it the most democratic fell on deaf ears (perhaps he’d been playing his trombone too loudly) and I wandered home from the pub that evening trying to remember the last time I had stumbled across a great rock band that made me genuinely sit up and go “Wow”.
The following day I was making my way home from work and I decided to pop into a high-street music retailer that was going into liquidation and aimlessly flicked through the racks when I stumbled across an album by a band that a music loving associate of mine had raved about. I was pretty certain it wasn’t the same album he was talking about, but for £3 I was willing to give it a shot, so I parted with the modest funds for it.
The album in question was Almost Killed Me, the debut of The Hold Steady, a band that had formed from the ashes of Minneapolis act Lifter Puller and I’m not overselling it by saying that it re-established and reconfirmed my faith in rock music.
Almost Killed Me is by far and away the scruffiest of The Hold Steady’s albums, as well as their most organic sounding release. It crackles with bar band energy and sets out the band’s style with the minimum of fuss. Even at this early stage in their career The Hold Steady were a mature and intelligent classic rock indebted group specialising in narrative-heavy songs which centred around the three morally ambiguous characters of Charlemagne, Gideon and Holly. Singer Craig Finn’s voice is a thrillingly untutored instrument and gave The Hold Steady an authenticity that so many modern rock bands lack. Add on top of this the fact that at this stage in their career the band utilised the brilliantly simple yet effective device of trying to cram the title of the song and the name of their own band into as many of the songs as possible and their use of repeated lines and pop-culture references in their songwriting and it was obvious the The Hold Steady were a very special band indeed.
Having established themselves as an intriguing rock band of considerable depth, The Hold Steady could have just repeated the trick of Almost Killed Me and their fans would have been happy. Instead they upped the ante with Separation Sunday, a pseudo-concept album centring on the Charlemagne, Gideon and Holly characters and eschewing proper choruses where possible. They also expanded their sound with the addition of keyboard player Franz Nicolay (who had appeared as a guest on their debut) as a full band member, giving them a considerably more expansive audio pallet and a talent arranger to boot. In the space of two albums The Hold Steady were already a fully formed entity and both albums had featured rabble-rousing and pulse-quickening opening tracks as well as a killer track closing track, giving both albums a very definite dynamic feel.
Boys and Girls in America, which found The Hold Steady giving their established bar band sound a rub down with a shammy leather and given just a little (but not too much) commercial polish. The result was something of a triumph and found them gain a small amount of international recognition as they name-dropped Bruce Springsteen shamelessly and The Boss reciprocated by endorsing their musical endeavours, particularly their live show.
Boys and Girls in America itself doesn’t start promisingly, as it kicks off with U2-esque guitar chug that is subsequently joined by a descending piano line straight that brings to mind Coldplay, however such thoughts are shunted aside by a grunting riff and “Stuck Between Stations” crashes through your speakers. As a statement of intent, it’s a strong one and effectively declared The Hold Steady’s arrival on the world stage, along with Charlemagne, Gideon and Holly. The whole album is packed full of proper rock tunes, wordy narratives and big choruses and once again ends with a stunning closing track in the guise of “South Town Girls”.
Such was the impact of Boys and Girls in America, it found their first two albums receive retrospective praise in the monthly music press, as they were made readily available in the UK for the first time. Tickets for their live shows subsequently became much in demand by young rock fans looking for a band with a mature and intelligent outlook on life as well as older fans that were looking to be reminded that the spirit of the rock bands that they held dear when they were young still coursed through the veins of a young(ish) band. Okay, so The Hold Steady were all in their mid to late 30s by this point, but hey, lets not split hairs here.
With this new found critical support and an expanding fanbase, the Hold Steady released Stay Positive at the peak of a wave of confidence. While the album made few, if any, direct references to the Charlemagne, Gideon and Holly characters by name, the spirit of the characters remained undimmed throughout the lyrics of the album. While not as consistent as what had gone before, Stay Positive maintained the accessible commercial edge of Boys and Girls in America, particularly in the title track and “Sequestered in Memphis” and it charted in the top 20 here in the UK. I was also lucky enough to see them on the tour they did to promote Stay Positive and it remains one of the best rock concerts I’ve ever had the pleasure of attending.
The departure of Franz Nicolay before their next album was announced was something of a surprise, as his piano parts had been such a vital ingredient in the band’s sound, not to mention his skills as an arranger and his magnetic stage presence. There were rumblings that he wasn’t happy with the ongoing direction of the band and the line from the rest of the band was that they enjoyed the freedom of becoming a guitar band again. To my ears at least, Nicolay’s departure was a significant blow, as it reduced the sonic dynamic of the band significantly. As a result of these reduced circumstances, Heaven if Whenever perhaps lacked a bit of focus and sparkle that the last two albums had enjoyed. There were still great songs of course, but I personally can’t escape the feeling that they just weren’t as musically supple as they had been previously. A solid rather than a strong album, it’s been their last studio album to date, though one is scheduled for release this year.
For the type of rock fan that is partial to a bit Bruce Springsteen, Warren Zevon and even a touch of Randy Newman style narrative songwriting, there is much to appreciate in the output of The Hold Steady. Their five studio albums to date are best sampled chronologically in order to fully appreciate their career arc. There are a couple of live albums, one an acoustic mini-album, the other a fair document of a live gig (it’s just a shame it doesn’t quite capture the full excitement of that night I saw them at the Leadmill back in 2008), and as yet there isn’t an official compilation, though if there was one, it probably wouldn’t be the way to go. As I say, approach their studio albums chronologically and you won’t go far wrong.
The Hold Steady are a real rock band in a time of artifice and doubt. Long may they continue.