It’s late summer 2007, it’s pouring with rain outside, and I’m spending the evening in the pub.
I’d had dozens of nights like this in the previous ten years, a cheery couple of pints in our local had descended into my friend berating me for having a preference for rock music rather than jazz. His regular argument was that rock was music for those that just didn’t understand music, whereas if you had a grounding in music theory, then the jazz world offered infinitely more brilliance than rock and roll ever could. Effectively, in the eyes of my friend, if you were a jazz fan, you were enlightened and intelligent, whereas those of us who preferred the more primal sounds of rock and roll meant that they were knuckle-dragging halfwits significantly lacking in any sort of sophistication. I’d heard variations on this rant dozens of times before, and frankly it was starting to wear a little thin now, but I wasn’t in the mood to argue with him, after all, I’d just recently come out of a relationship and being criticised for my lack of musical taste was not what I needed, besides, nothing I could say was going to alter his opinions on such things, due to one immutable fact – My rather self-serving friend was a jazz musician and he felt massively unappreciated.
Later that night, as I ambled home through the puddles and downpour I started reflecting on my love of rock music. Many of my favourite acts had released their best work in the 60s and 70s and precious few contemporary acts had released albums which I cared much about, and those that I did had gone into a bit of a lull recently. I dunno, maybe my friend, in his own self-serving way had been right, maybe rock had run out of steam.
The following day I was idly flicking through the racks in a music store and stumbled across a reduced price album by The Hold Steady, a band that someone had mentioned to me in passing that had apparently been around for a few years and were starting to receive some press attention. I’d not actually heard anything by them, but for a minimum outlay, I was prepared to give their debut album, Almost Killed Me a chance.
There are moments of minor revelation in your life that stay with you forever, no matter how insignificant, and the first time I heard “Positive Jam” segue into “The Swish” was one of those moments. It reminded me exactly what I loved about music and I was instantly re-energised and enthused about the redemptive power of rock and roll. Although the production was unpolished and the guitars were grimy, Craig Finn’s barked vocals evocatively delivered his smart narrative lyrics. This was an unashamed rock band, playing their hearts out regardless of the size of their audience, not because they were told to, but because they wanted to, they had to. Half measures of passion were not an option. The Hold Steady were an all or nothing affair, be you a member of the audience, or a member of the band. At this stage in their career, they were either a band you appreciated, or were baffled by, there was simply no middle ground.
With their straight up rock and roll sound and Finn’s narrative lyrics depicting the underbelly of life punctuated with catholic imagery, The Hold Steady were much more of a bar band rather than the garage rock sound fashionable at the time, and for all their rough around the edges musical approach, guitarist Tad Kubler was a stand out musician. The rest of the band very much held their own too, being utterly capable of finding and maintaining a groove, regardless of what direction Finn’s lyrics may dictate the song go. Although, for obvious reasons The Hold Steady are most frequently compared to Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, at this stage in their career lyrically Finn owed just as much to the likes of Warren Zevon and Randy Newman. As much as Almost Killed Me depended on killer riffs, Finn also had an uncanny grasp of not only killer choruses, but also for turns of lyrical genius, such as utilising the early rock and roll trick of repeating the same line two or three times in succession, and even dropping in the band’s name for that extra element of brand recognition. It’s so effective, you really have to wonder why more rock bands don’t do that sort of thing.
Although he would not officially join The Hold Steady until their next album, keyboard and piano wizard Franz Nicolay’s guest appearances on the album lend a hint of musical sophistication, but when you consider Almost Killed Me as a whole, it’s an unashamed guitar album. Despite its lack of production polish, it marks out its sonic territory admirably (in the corner of a dive bar, amps on upturned beer crates, etc), the band get on with rocking the joint and the listener is entertained by Finn’s evocative tales of Gideon, Holly and Charlemagne, the upsides and downsides of their party lifestyles and their brushes with mortality. As the album closes with “Killer Parties”, you’re not only utterly rapt by the band, but you want to hear more about the characters that Finn has spent the last forty minutes singing about.
Almost Killed Me stands as an attention grabbing debut by a band that ultimately led me to re-establish my faith in rock music at a time when I was starting to despair if there were any great rock bands left. Of course there were, I just needed to find my faith again. I needed The Hold Steady.