You know you’re getting old when you think about one of your favorite albums and in your reflections you realize that your first flirtations with said album happened nearly ten years ago. Where does the time go? I first heard this week’s Artist of The Week while working a mall handy man job in the summer of 2005. I had recently dropped out of college and got set up with the gig in Lynwood, WA, a small suburb outside of Seattle. I was living with a friend’s parents and I was earning dough by scrapping gum off staircases, picking up garbage, and tearing down defunct retail stores. Some would call that bottom. No. Bottom for me was wiping up puke to Top-40 songs at a smoothie shop in Tucson, AZ six months prior. For me this was my first step off the bottom. The only thing that made this job tolerable was I had a partner in crime. His name was Ross. He was pushing 30 and had just broken up with his long time girlfriend. He was even more miserable than me. He spent his days playing guitar, getting stoned, wallowing in the hate for his ex-girlfriend, and talking about how much he hated his ex-girlfriend. He was a solid guy. Since our company fired the city street sweepers that cleaned the mall parking lots, Ross and I had to cruise the multiple football field sized parking lots three times a week from 5AM-10AM picking up garbage. We would walk the lots, snagging dirty diapers, beer cans, and cigarette butts. Our only company aside from each other was our beater pickup truck’s AM/FM radio.
Prior to meeting Ross I was a strictly Grunge/ Gangsta rap guy. It was a weird combo but hey, that’s what I was into. Meanwhile Ross fancied himself a connoisseur of rockabilly and folk. Us two were a regular odd couple. Lucky for me there was a station that could entertain us both. It was that summer that Ross introduced me to the Seattle station KEXP. Their morning show aptly titled John in The Morning was a mix of everything under the sun. I got my early morning Tribe Called Quest, Ross got his dose of Bill Monroe, and then John would keep the ravers that were still awake dancing, with a 6AM playing of Phatt Bass. Through this show, I was exposed to genres that in the years prior, I had rejected simply out of ignorance. It was on this show during one of the many garbage runs, that I first heard Stevie Nix by The Hold Steady. I was entranced by the way the way the full band embraced the harsh sing/ shout of front man Craig Finn. It was unlike anything I’d heard at the time. His words cut through in a way that made me truly listen to lyrics. It reminded me of hip-hop in that, the beat and music were simply backing for the poetry. The Hold Steady’s band seemed to cater to Finn’s words in the same way, highlighting and emphasizing the more clever lines. The Hold Steady had drawn me in. I became curious. And once I started listening, I couldn’t stop. That’s the type of quality you look for in an ARTIST OF THE WEEK.
Currently, The Hold Steady are comprised of:
Bobby Drake: Drums
Tad Kubler: Lead Guitar
Galen Polivka: Bass
Steve Selvidge: Guitar
I also want to include keyboardist Franz Nicolay in there. Even though he left the band in 2010, without his contributions on Stay Positive and Boys and Girls in America wouldn’t have the rich illustrious sounds that they do.
In the early 90’s Craig and Tad found moderate success as the Minneapolis band Lifter Puller. In 2000 they moved to New York where they formed The Hold Steady. Rather than changing their style really, they kept doing what they did back in MN. They had become a New York band that wrote songs about Minnesota. It was as if Garrison Keller had moved to Brooklyn and just kept talking about Lake Woebegone. Actually…that sounds pretty all right. Finn isn’t so much a singer, as he is a storyteller. Finn’s narratives regale everything from long nights of partying, drug over doses, and the questioning the Catholic Church, to finding love, having sketchy friends, and winning a ton of dough on a horse race. Finn is poignant and honest. His songs feel bitingly personal as he unveils truths that many fear coming to grips with within themselves. It’s this quality that draws listeners in.
In 2004 they released Almost Killed Me, but like I said, I got on this train in 2005 with the release of Separation Sunday. It was the first album that I picked up that summer and I listened to it everyday. The most memorable tracks being Stevie Nix, Your Little Hoodrat Friend, and How A Resurrection Really Feels. The moods vary from track to track and give the listener a true experience. Some tracks are highs, some tracks are extreme lows, but such is life. Looking back on this album now, after gaining a little life experience, the stories on the record are no longer just stories. They’ve become flashbacks of my own life. I may have loved the album in 2005, but I appreciate it more now than I ever did before. I’ve lived the rough party nights from Stevie Nix. I’ve chased after bad relationships like the ones in How A Resurrection Really Feels. I even found myself a Little Hoodrat Friend.
Side note: I believe that I have the greatest Hoodrat Friend of all Hoodrat Friends. She makes bad decisions, dates weird dudes, likes hard drugs, but has always been there in my times of need. At one point in college I found myself in the hospital and my first three visitors were my Dad, Tim the security guy from my local bar, and my Little Hoodrat Friend. She had brought with her the most resent episode of Lost that I had missed. While I was too whacked out on morphine to understand what was going on, it’s the thought that counts. I couldn’t ask for a better Hoodrat Friend.
For me, the full appreciation of Separation Sunday was a slow burn. However the band’s next two albums, Boys and Girls in America (2006) and Separation Sunday (2008), were adored. They were simply fun rock records. The albums are poppy yet meaningful. Not poppy in a Top-40 way, poppy in a way that makes you want to grab another beer dance around. I realize that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, but damnit that’s what these tunes make me feel like doing. The two albums are loaded with party hits. Boys and Girls has Party Pit, Chips Ahoy!, Massive Nights, and Southtown Girls. Stay Positive packs punches with Separation Sunday, Sequestered In Memphis, and Stay Positive. These albums piece together a symphony of piano and rock guitar that is so fucking fun and it’s rarely heard these days. Where are all the rock bands that are just fun to jump around and drink beer to? Where are the Andrew W.K.’s of the world? Have they all been replaced by Dubstep and ecstasy? God that sucks. This is why my generation shouldn’t have nice things.
After those albums I sort of drifted away from The Hold Steady. They put out the live album A Positive Rage in 2009. It that was pretty damn good, but to be honest I’d rather just listen to the studio stuff. I’ve been to a few Hold Steady shows, and A Positive Rage despite being good, doesn’t live up to the memories of those shows I’ve got stashed in my head. I did buy their latest release Heaven is Whenever, but I feel like it’s lacking the energy that the previous four records had. Hopefully with the next release these boys will get back on track.
Those times driving around with Ross tended to vary from terrible, to super shitty. It was hot, I was broke, and I didn’t really have any plan in life. But then I think about those early mornings where we would sitting in the bed of that pick up truck. Ross would smoke and I would hear bands like Hold Steady, Mike Doughty, and Neko Case. Bands I would have never given a chance in years prior. I think about those times, and despite everything else, I smile. Sometimes good music is all you need to get by. I look at that summer in the truck as my introduction to that good music.