A lot of hip bands spend their time either trying to transcend their embarrassing formative years — or pretending they never happened at all. So it's refreshing that a mega-hip band like the Hold Steady so avidly explore the lie-dream of the suburban soul.
Minnesotan talk-singer Craig Finn spits aphoristic poetry about wasted youth, all rehab and tawdry scenarios, in a caustic, blizzard-cutting upper Midwestern bark, his W.C. Fields often erupting into Ralph Kramden. His oracular testifying fronts beerily anthemic chord progressions, shameless twin guitar lines and fist-pumping, meat-and-potatoes riffs served up on an aluminum platter by lead guitarist Tad Kubler; theatrical dynamic shifts and the grandiose whirr of the keyboards recall Bruce Springsteen in extremis.
Speaking of the Boss, songs like "Hornets! Hornets!" profile the same kind of suburban losers in albums like Born to Run, but while the Boss romanticized his characters as beautiful losers like something out of an early Scorsese flick, the people in Hold Steady songs aren't beautiful, and they're far more familiar than anything you'll ever see in a Hollywood movie. So while Springsteen rhapsodizes about a "barefoot girl sittin 'on the hood of a Dodge," Finn refers to exactly the same type of person as a "hoodrat." He lards his lines with knowing Catholic references, pop culture shout-outs and repeated call-backs of a pathetic place known as "Ybor City" until they become in-jokes that even you're in on.
Amid the Stonesy strut to "Charlemagne in Sweatpants" and the Zeppy swagger of "Stevie Nix," Finn rants about life on the barely-middle-class fringes of Minneapolis, but his tales of misadventure could happen anywhere from southern California to northern Massachusetts. Gimlet-eyed, Finn takes it all in with a hipster's sangfroid, a journalist's knack for detail and a playwright's ear for dialogue.
But all the poetry in the world won't rock your world. The Hold Steady bring the noise, churning out guitar crunch via suburban mainstays from Bachman-Turner Overdrive to Aerosmith, those iconic '70s bands signifying not a particular time but simply the apotheosis of the form. For the Hold Steady, the riff-a-rama of the indigenous music of the American wasteland emerges as not just an aggressive catharsis, but a surprisingly reliable, if fleeting, way of jolting oneself out of the relentless catatonia induced by cheap drugs, endless strip malls and the nagging sensation that nothing will ever get any better.