A reformed Catholic walks into a bar, meets this punk kid and says something about Billy Joel.
Sounds like the set-up to an old joke, right? A style trick of oratory that says, "Hey, this is going to be funny."
Well, that's what The Hold Steady does with their classic-rock riffage-the big, meaty hooks, the instantly recognizable guitar solo. Except the joke seems to be on the band itself. Or, rather, contained somewhere between the simpleton trad-rock and the complex storytelling of Craig Finn, the 33-year-old rock nerd who fronts them.
When the band and Finn dance, it's a brawl of brows. Low-brows and middle-brows and high-brows.
The band says, "Hey, this is going to be simple." And then Craig opens his mouth with a line like, "I've tried so hard not to fall in love/ I have to concentrate when we kiss."
It's a great line. So is "You're kissing like you already came."
That one's not from The Hold Steady. That's from Lifter Puller, a once-great-on-a-local-level math-punk band from Minneapolis, the vehicle Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler had before this one. They were big enough (or cool enough) that Twin City rapper Atmosphere dropped that line-and properly attributed it-in one of his own songs.
But Lifter Puller broke up in 2000, their legacy restricted to an area code. After the split, Finn moved to New York, Kubler to L.A. In New York, Finn found dance-punk and NYC ironic cool at its peak. In L.A., Kubler didn't really find shit.
A few of Finn's New York friends ran a comedy troupe, and asked him and a few of his music pals to come down and play bumper music-you know, like "Back in Black" and that kind of great, hokey stuff.
So he did, and he liked it. He called Kubler, who had by then moved back to Minneapolis. And like an ex-boyfriend who never really liked the "ex" part of it all, Kubler packed his bags before hanging up the phone.
The Hold Steady used that classic-rock approach to underscore the most unique thing about the band-Finn's, er, singing. It's not really singing, and to be honest, it's not just the most unique thing about the band. It's the most unique thing in most of rock right now.
Finn rambles like Dylan, almost completely unaware of the melody the band's playing behind him. He's a barely melodic preacher with a gravelly voice that sounds borne of cheap cigarettes and expensive bar tabs. He's specific in his imagery like Tom Waits but with heightened pop-culture awareness, as can be heard in "Hornets! Hornets!," the opening song off their newest album, Separation Sunday, when Finn describes a girl who's "got all those Bones Brigade videos."
He also describes his type of people: "I like the guy who answers the door/ He always knows what you came to his house for."
Sounds like a drug dealer, the type of street urchins that scurried through The Hold Steady's first album, Almost Killed Me, which was recently listed at No. 31 on the "Pazz & Jop" poll in The Village Voice. The sort of urchins who flatly say things like, "My name is Rick Danko/ But some people call me One Hour Photo/ I've got some dangerous chemicals."
For Finn, it's nowhere near autobiographical. But he's seen his share of druggies and boozers and losers in this rock 'n' roll life. He's just liberally interpreting their lives in Bukowskian semi-poems.
Finn's also an Irish-Catholic, so he's also witnessed plenty of salvation rituals. And that's what dominates Separation Sunday-whereas his characters last time out reached for pills, they're now grasping for God. They're not always successful, but their efforts are always interesting.
"I've been dusted in the dark/ Up in Penetration Park," says one of his characters in "You're Little Hoodrat Friend. "I've been plastered/I've been shaking hard and searching in a dirty storefront church."
Salvation comes in many forms. The bottle. Dirty churches and hoodrat friends with Jesus tattoos. But for Finn-an aging rock barker with a Raymond Carver-like talent for the literary sketch-it's come in The Hold Steady.
And it is great and it is good.
The Hold Steady play with U.S.E. on June 14, 9 p.m. at The Casbah. $8. 619-232-HELL.