The Hold Steady are half of the former group Lifter Puller. If you're not familiar with Lifter Puller, the group mixed a lot of energy and intensity as seen in the likes of the Replacements, but had lyrics which seemed to be at least of a post-secondary education genre. The genesis of the group, fronted by singer/songwriter Craig Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler, was actually more of a result of the "electroclash" flash-in-the-pan fad around last year. The Hold Steady is intent on bringing the "rock" back into the roll. Thus, the group sat down to record this very sparse and demo-sounding album, which kicks off with "Positive Jam" -- a minimal guitar strumming and a stream of consciousness diatribe that brings Jello Biafra to mind, both in terms of style and actually vocal pitch. Going through the various decades, the rhythm section is barely a whisper as drummer Judd Counsell makes himself present with a smashing of cymbals. "The seventies got heavy / We woke up on bloody carpets", Finn sings before the tune opens up to a thick and grandiose Floydian rock feel and into a speaker-alternating Southern rock sound.
More concrete and bouncier is the meaty and crunchy style of "The Swish", which brings to mind early R.E.M. meets Zeppelin if such an entity exists. The guitar work of Kubler is on the verge of being too bombastic, but each time he is able to rein himself back in. Finn's snarl as he refers to Robbie Robertson is suited for the track, although he just gives enough of himself to make it a pleasing piece of ear candy. Sort of like Johnny Rotten reading poetry. There are also references to Nina Simone and other rock celebrities as it builds one brief riff after another. "Barfruit Blues" follows the same momentum but isn't quite as heavy, maybe because the sound is very low, as if Finn is singing with his head poking out of a doorway. "It's good to see you back in a bar band, baby", he sings before the guitars seize control a la the Strokes. The 'Mats "Little Mascara" is a fair comparison as the rhythm section tends to open it up while it moves along.
The first clunker is the mid-tempo pop rock of "Most People Are DJs", which sounds too forced and too formulaic. It's the first time that the adventurous nature is overshadowed by a basic arrangement. It improves halfway through, but isn't enough to get past that first large obstacle despite some stellar plucking from Kubler and bassist Galen Polivka. One good quality you hear early is that they're not afraid to "jam" or fully flush songs and ideas out, as this song goes on and on before being abruptly snipped. "Certain Songs" is a piano-driven ditty reminiscent of Randy Newman as he talks about certain songs being "scratched into our souls". It's a scuzzier Meat Loaf or Springsteen-like narrative but with far more bite than the Boss or Mr. Loaf. The military drumbeat builds up to a crescendo prior to dying out again. Thankfully, "Knuckles" lives up to its initial expectations, making it the first great song here.
Finn is able to channel his anger or rants into short but telling lyrics, especially on tunes like "Hostile, Mass.". Talking about clubber parties and drinking dark Barcardi, the song's gritty edge matches the edgier lyrics. The saxophone is another surprise, bringing to mind Springsteen yet again but to a lesser extent. The last couple of tunes, particularly "Sweet Payne", are more of a Marah-cum-Bob Seger -- a nice and melodic bar band that keeps you engaged. After "Killer Parties", you realize that the band is far greater than the sum of its parts. And far better than it should be. A real sleeper pick.