The Hold Steady spent the end of 2016 with a very limited set of shows celebrating the 10th anniversary of their third album and critical and commercial breakthrough, Boys and Girls in America. Keyboard player Franz Nicolay, who departed the band in 2010, returned for these shows. This has made the run a true treat for the band’s fans. But while the band was looking backwards 10 years, their former label, Frenchkiss, was looking back just a little further, to 2005 and 2004.
Frenchkiss has put together deluxe editions of the Hold Steady’s first two albums, Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday, complete with the requisite remastering, bonus tracks, and demo takes. Listening to these records again, it’s easy to hear why it took until Boys and Girls for the band to actually break through, but also why they had plenty of supporters in the critical community right out of the gate. Of course the answer to both of these questions comes down to vocalist Craig Finn.
The downside of Almost Killed Me, and to a lesser extent, Separation Sunday, is that the Hold Steady essentially treat Finn as a traditional lead singer when he clearly isn’t. They are writing hard rock songs with grooves and riffs and leaving space for the lead vocals to provide the melody. Occasionally a groove or a riff is legitimately great, but only occasionally. And Finn doesn’t even attempt to sing on most of these songs. He just talks his way through his stories while the band does their thing. It leaves a big hole right in the center of the band’s songs where a melody should be, and a listener’s tolerance for Finn’s storytelling is essentially what makes or breaks the songs.
Fortunately, Finn is a terrific storyteller, and his highly literate, obsessively detailed lyrics are the clear star of these albums. His slightly slurred vocal style is reminiscent of an excited guy at the local bar who can’t wait to tell you the latest story of the crazy people in his life. And the crazy people in his life consist of three main characters: Gideon, Charlemagne, and Hallelujah (aka Holly), and their gang the Cityscape Skins. Finn returns again and again to this trio, and Separation Sunday in particular tells a fractured narrative about Holly’s descent into drug culture and eventual Catholic redemption. “Fractured” is the key word there. Another way Finn’s lyrics resemble a storytelling acquaintance in a bar is that his tales aren’t told in any particular chronological order. He’s essentially telling loosely related anecdotes about these people without regard for constructing a coherent narrative. These albums reward repeated listens because familiarity seems to sketch in more and more of the story. As a nice perk for intent listeners, most of the rarities on the deluxe editions involve the same three characters, providing more grist for the story-decoding mill.
Besides attempting to keep track of the adventures of the core trio, a big appeal of the Hold Steady’s early albums is Finn’s wordplay. On Almost Killed Me, “The Swish” puts that wordplay on full display, as Finn runs through endless one-liners and classic rock references. “She said my name’s Rick Danko, baby, people call me One Hour Photo / I got some hazardous chemicals” is just the first example of nearly a dozen in the song. “Barfruit Blues” takes full advantage of Finn’s speaking style with its refrain: “She said, ‘It’s good to see you back in a bar band, baby’ / I said, ‘It’s great to see you’re still in the bars.’” The little chuckle in Finn’s voice on the back half of that couplet perfectly conveys an attitude that says, “I can’t believe this ridiculous woman is still getting drunk in bars years later, but I’m not going to turn down a compliment.”
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“Knuckles” is one of the few songs on Almost Killed Me that seems to have a musical plan besides just laying down a groove behind Finn’s stories. Finn shouts his way through a story about drug culture in the Midwest while going over a list of a guy trying to get people to call him self-appointed nicknames, while the people keep giving him more embarrassing variations on those nicknames. “I’ve been trying to get people to call me ‘Freddy Knuckles’ / But people keep calling me ‘Right Said Fred.’” But musically the song chugs along like triumphantly, brighter and more melodic than the tracks around it. Closer “Killer Parties” also holds up musically, as it builds gradually to an actual climax. Gavin Polivka and Judd Counsell hold down a solid groove on bass and drums while Tad Kubler does all sorts of spacey things on his guitar(s). Finn laments that “killer parties almost killed me” while the song pushes further and further into guitar feedback and noise before the music finally stops dead for Finn to run through the refrain one more time.
The bonus tracks for Almost Killed Me are an interesting bunch. “Milkcrate Mosh” was the band’s first release, from a seven-inch, and it exaggerates all of their early issues. Kubler, Polivka, and Counsell stay almost entirely out of the way while Finn is talking, playing a quiet groove and only coming to life during the bits when Finn is silent. But this is a full-on story of the core trio, which is great for completists. “Hot Fries” and “Curves and Nerves” both show more musical creativity while still putting Finn front and center. The latter talks about Holly’s ill-advised attempt to be an actress in Hollywood while the former spends a lot of time discussing how much less impressive your favorite things seem with a little more experience and a lot fewer drugs. “You Gotta Dance” is a rocker that will be familiar from the band’s live album A Positive Rage, and final song “Modesto Is Not That Sweet” is an accordion-backed ballad that features Finn making a halfway decent attempt at singing.
Separation Sunday, released a mere 14 months after Almost Killed Me, found the band making incremental adjustments to their sound. The biggest was adding Nicolay as a full-time member, although his impact wouldn’t be regularly felt until the next album. Beyond that, though, the band itself was tighter and more musical this time out. This is apparent right off the bat, as opener “Hornets! Hornets!” has a couple of genuine riffs, including one that runs along behind Finn’s vocals. The song also features a genuine bridge that lingers effectively before the band returns to the main riff to close out the song.
“Cattle and the Creeping Things” features both a strong dark vibe and a melodic horn section accompaniment. The demo version of the track is included in the bonus section sans horns and it’s immediately apparent how much that little bit of horns adds to final version of the song. Melody counts for a lot, it turns out. This is also apparent on the next song, album highlight “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”. This track finds Finn doing just enough singing for the song to have a real melody. The backing vocals from Nicole Willis on the chorus (a real chorus! also a rarity at this point for the band) make this the band’s first true sing-along song. It helps that the story is a funny one, as our narrator goes from strenuously denying that he was involved with the titular hoodrat to revealing a deeper and deeper relationship until the final run through the chorus, “I ain’t ever been with your little hoodrat friend,” sounds like desperate pleading instead of outright denial.
As Finn spins his tales about Holly and her misadventures, the band continues to back him with more lively songs, and Nicolay’s organ and piano playing starts to assert itself more. This climaxes in “Multitude of Casualties”, where Finn again tips over the borderline into actual singing. Kubler and Nicolay shine here, as the guitar and bass chug away on a simple melodic chord progression while Nicolay’s organ adds a great, catchy arpeggio. The bridge drops everything except for vocals and organ, which sets up a great impact when the rest of the band comes back in. The album wraps up with “How a Resurrection Really Feels”, which lyrically ties together several story threads from the album. It also uses backing vocals and horns subtly but effectively to give the song a quietly triumphant feeling.
The bonus tracks are a mixed bag here. The demo of “Charlemagne in Sweatpants” doesn’t differ much from the studio version. A bit better are two alternate takes of the short “Crucifixion Cruise”, one of which is accompanied by quiet electric guitar and the other by piano. Both are interesting variations on the final version, which ultimately used organ as the sole instrument. The previously unreleased “212 Margarita” is a slow rocker that mixes acoustic and electric guitars under Finn’s intentionally tired-sounding vocals. Second unreleased song “The Most Important Thing” is uptempo and bright but commits the sin of putting Finn’s vocals at the same volume level as the music. In this stage of the band’s career, if it’s difficult to make out what Finn is saying then it’s almost not worth the trouble of listening.
The Hold Steady’s first two albums are strong in their way. The band’s ‘70s-inspired classic rock punch is effective, and there weren’t too many acts on the indie circuit doing this kind of stuff in the mid-00’s. The White Stripes and the Strokes were still going but the rest of the garage rock revival was collapsing around them, and bands name-checking members of Journey weren’t exactly thought of as cool. Finn is an entertaining lyricist, but his spoken word style is definitely a barrier to entry at this point, especially considering how barebones the music is on Almost Killed Me in particular. Separation Sunday’s hints of melody would become full-blown one year later with Boys and Girls in America. Nicolay’s playing became much more prominent, Finn started to carry a tune much of the time, and the rest of the band began chiming in with melodic backing vocals all over the place. But for the Hold Steady, these first two albums literally contain the beginning of the story, and the deluxe editions are definitely packed with enough strong extras to warrant a look from dedicated fans.