Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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Positive Harangues

They spurn alt orthodoxy not just by writing parsable lyrics but by embracing the now unfashionable label "rock and roll"--and then providing simple structures, motorvating momentum, and catchy riffs to go with it.

Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn is a 37-year-old fireplug with a receding hairline who looks like he might someday perform with pens in his pocket or put elastic on his black-rimmed glasses so they don't fly off as he gesticulates around his patch of stage. A beer-swilling Twin Cities Catholic who attended that Jesuit hotbed of artistic ferment Boston College, Finn led the excellent '90s Minneapolis art-punk band Lifter-Puller before immigrating to Brooklyn and forming the less subcultural Hold Steady with old bandmate Tad Kubler in 2003. For him, punk is roots--his parents were driving him to shows early in high school. But he always understood its limitations. Once, he told an interviewer in 2005, a member of the Descendents asked his posse if they knew any girls who would blow him. "I was like, 'If we knew that, what would we be doing at a Descendents show?'"

What the Hold Steady share with Lifter-Puller, whose 2001 Soft Rock double-CD is now a collector's item, is that they resist the musicianly tendencies of 21st-century indie-rock by charging out words first. Possessed of a thick, phlegmy voice that barely feigns melody, Finn is a natural haranguer, and an indiedom given to burying lyrics that probably make no sense anyway, he's not alone. Think John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats on the poetry side, Eddie Argos of Art Brut on the comedy side. Mention irrepressible storyteller Patterson Hood, whose multi-guitar Drive-By Truckers rarely generate as much momentum as the lyrics they set off on record and drown out live, and 54-year-old power strummer Ed Hamell, who makes more noise with his 1937 Gibson than four people half his age with a full complement of amplifiers. Respect godfather Mark E. Smith of the Fall and acknowledge the related efforts of Leonard Cohen, Johnny Cash, Woody Guthrie et al, and dozens of alt-rappers. Haranguers are all over the place.

None of the above-named lyrics-firsters is anything like "unmusical." Nevertheless, indie musos have a bead on a truth, which is that it's easier to listen to music than to lyrics. Live, there's no choice--if the Drive-By Truckers outpower Hood, how do you suppose Spoon and Animal Collective treat Britt Daniel and Avey Tare? And in the home, recorded music has a way of drifting away from the forefront of consciousness even when you sit down expressly to concentrate. So however much you love your lyrics-first albums, you don't necessarily play them that much, with the consequence that they recede from memory. Some believe this deficit of use value renders Leonard Cohen lame. I don't, because I'm always drawn to records by some species of musicality even if it's only timbre and phrasing, and because anyway, why shouldn't I value lyrics when there are few places I love the English language more? Still, faded memories are probably one reason the Hold Steady's fifth album, A Positive Rage, hit me on the sweet spot.

I didn't get around to the advance I was mailed till after its April 7 release on the grounds that live albums are for fans only--big fans, often sentimental, undiscriminating fans. This rule does not apply to jazz, and there are other exceptions, generally involving repertoire, improvisation, or death. A Positive Rage, however, didn't qualify. Commercially and artistically, it's filler--old music to patch up a release schedule. Eight of the 16 songs Finn and his boys recorded at Chicago's 1,100-capacity Metro on Halloween of 2006 come from their best-regarded album, Boys and Girls in America, which they were promoting at the time. Yet it sounded so right when I finally played it that I packed the CD for a West Coast trip. And when I stuck it into the slot of my rental car as I followed a friend home from an East L.A. mole place, I was transported to another plane.

This kind of thing happens to me when I'm driving. For a Manhattanite who gets around by bike and subway, the getaway cocoon of a sedan with the windows up and nothing else to do is an ideal listening environment. There were no tempo or intonation changes in the banging 30-second guitar-then-keyboard riff of "Stuck Between Stations," which leads A Positive Rage as it does Boys and Girls in America, or in Finn's "There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right/Boys and girls in America they have such a sad time together/Sucking off each other at the demonstrations/Making sure their makeup's right." But the performance grabbed me so hard that I didn't mind when Finn swallowed the last word of my favorite line, losing a slantwise internal rhyme: "She was a really cool kisser and she wasn't all that strict of a Christian." My mind did wander as the song moved on to John Berryman jumping into the Mississippi ("He likes the warm feeling but he's tired of all the dehydration"). But when Finn launched "The Swish," which I'd heard only at shows since it surfaced on the band's 2004 debut, Almost Killed Me, I was delighted all over again by its sub-hip-hop celebrity rhymes: Beverly Hills/Beverly Sills, Neil Schon/Nina Simone/André Cymone.

The drive home took half an album; Chicano 'hoods more redolent of Finn's Minnesota than my own proved an excellent setting for his well-turned tales of adolescent adventure and alt anomie. Yet as I rediscovered "Barfruit Blues"'s "She said it's great to see you back in a bar band baby/I said it's great to see you're still in the bars" and discovered "Ask Her for Aderall"'s "If she asks just tell her that we opened for the Stones/They're her favorite band except for the Ramones," the lines that really got me going were the wordless refrains I sang along with a massed chorus of Halloween revelers--"Chips Ahoy"'s "Oh-ho-ho ho-ho-uh-ho," "Massive Nights"'s "Whoa-ho ho-ho-ho." When I checked Almost Killed Me back in New York, I was struck by how much the band had battened down and muscled up, even though I already knew Franz Nicolay's keyboards had transformed the Hold Steady sound on the Catholic quasi-concept album Separation Sunday in 2005.

Which is to point out that the new haranguers aren't strictly about words. With the eccentric exception of John Darnielle (who began his career shouting solo into a cassette recorder, loves death metal, and chose a Dionne Warwick album as his desert island disc), they spurn alt orthodoxy not just by writing parsable lyrics but by embracing the now unfashionable label "rock and roll"--and then providing simple structures, motorvating momentum, and catchy riffs to go with it. As Finn boils his mission down in the band-on-the-run DVD that baits A Positive Rage: "Play good rock and roll and have smart lyrics." Only unlike the Brill Building masters, these guys don't think they're required to evoke a microcosm in eighty words or less. They're verbose, like classic Dylan--or early Bruce Springsteen, who's key here. Even in the punk-identified Lifter-Puller, Finn's declamatory run-ons recalled Springsteen, and once Nicolay signed on, a turn toward E Street grandeur was inevitable. Keyboard flourishes get corny so quick that I always preferred Separation Sunday to Boys and Girls in America. But having immersed in A Positive Rage, I'm not so sure. The fond amusement with which Finn bounces staccato vocals off big beat firms up the mush. His corn is something to chew on.

Which is to point out in turn that maybe rousing riffs and sing-alongs aren't the whole story. Maybe the live-ness of this live album infuses the music for once. Not every indie band is self-absorbed, diffident, or standoffish, but in a subculture that fetishizes the gig, it's odd the way live tracks are relegated to the limbo of bonus discs and compilation cuts. Showmanship is in such short supply on this scene that you'd best believe the fan who told Finn that the Hold Steady and the Drive-By Truckers were the only bands he'd ever seen smile. I first saw them at a club in May, 2005, and given Finn's nerdy profile, I was startled by his intensity. Every night he brayed, "There is so much joy in what we do." By November of 2008, co-headlining with none other than the Drive-By Truckers at Manhattan's 3,000-capacity Terminal 5, his beat-poet sermons were so joyous they got a big sweet oaf in front of me to jump up and down and yell "Fuck Radiohead!"

Having missed the tours in between, I surmise that 2006 was when Finn--who has said he used to tell the same stories at every show on the theory that "this is a complete fluke, everyone will forget about us 10 days from now"--figured out that he'd realized his dream. For more than a decade he'd written songs about a punk adolescence and a barfruit career. The characters he chronicled drank and took pills, scrambled and partied, dug music even if they didn't live for it, connected and disconnected and made do. Few of them were as arty as Finn, which is how he liked it, and just because he hung with them didn't mean they came to his shows. Only then they did--the band had a buzz and they knew him when. The comment-thread rumor mill spun its spin. Girls and especially boys in the next circle of hipness found bits of themselves in his stories, and soon the Hold Steady were attracting an audience that wasn't too proud to come back for more. So what you hear on A Positive Rage isn't just a superb repertoire nailed by a band on the tour of its life. It's a haranguer lifted by his fans and committed to delivering them, temporarily, from the sad times they have together. There is so much joy in what he does.

Although there were three albums of new Hold Steady songs between 2004 and 2006 there's been only one since: 2008's Stay Positive. Do we descry the beginnings of a theme in that title? Finn wishes. Those lowlife tales you didn't have to be a lowlife to feel aren't coming so easy anymore. It happens to the successful--even the moderately successful, which is all the Hold Steady are. So Stay Positive is long on consequences more consequential than what records you like. A scenester testifies under oath; a townie goes to prison; a femme fatale stops popping and starts shooting. Getting blown proves of little avail as virgins turn into vampires and busted relationships take on grim detail. Nobody gets up so fast anymore. But they do get up--that's why you have to stay positive.

A Positive Rage is filler product that signals the possibility that Finn will succumb to the self-referentiality that afflicts his calling. But the humane humor and power skepticism of his harangues signal how hard he'll fight that fate. And the sing-alongs signal how many believers he has on the other side of the proscenium.

Barnes & Noble Review, May 11, 2009