Monday, August 31, 2009

#122. 'There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right'

The Hold Steady "Stuck Between Stations"

Lifter Puller were, for my money, the single most under rated indie rock band of the late 90s/early 00s. I didn't get hip to them until about a year before half of their ranks resurfaced in The Hold Steady, but they still stand as one of the most accomplished artists in that realm. It wasn't just Craig Finn's lyrics, though the way he basically used Lifter Puller's 3 albums and assorted smaller releases to craft an out-of-order musical novel that never got so pretentious as to announce itself as such is quite something, but the whole band was in such sync with each other, flitting between all manner of styles and sounding equally adept at all of them, at least from Half Dead and Dynamite onward. They were also among the first ultra-obscure artists I was introduced to, even though it happened well after their demise, which I'd say was one of my first steps into the deep realms of music geekery I now inhabit. I could never call them my band, but they felt like it in some ways.

I'm only starting off like that because it sets the stage for why I found The Hold Steady to be such a crushing disappointment at first. When Almost Killed Me came out I was just at the tail end of my immersion in all things Lifter Puller, and given that half of LP was the core of The Hold Steady the album was one of my most anticipated releases of 2004...and then I heard it and it was just OK. I've grown to like it much more than I did initially, but to go straight to it from Lifter Puller's swan song Fiestas + Fiascos did it no favors. In LP Finn was drunk on his own words, not in a self aggrandizing way but just surely lost in his own lyrical outbursts in the most engaging way imaginable. That level of hunger didn't make it over to The Hold Steady, Finn was as wordy and his storytelling as dense as ever but it didn't come across the same way. The music was also a step down, trading the multi-faceted soundscapes of LP's albums for a relatively static backdrop of straight bar rock. I stuck with The Hold Steady because as much as they still lay in the shadow of Lifter Puller, Craig Finn was one of the best storytellers in rock music and I wasn't gonna let anything he did slip by me.

"Stuck Between Stations" is probably the only Hold Steady single that does justice to Finn's lyrical and storytelling abilities. Folding in the suicide of poet John Berryman into a fairly typical Finn lyric about hedonist twenty-somethings adds some of the gallows humour I was missing from earlier Hold Steady tracks and the band's found its groove after the addition of keyboardist Franz Nikolay, so even though they may not be covering as much musical ground as Finn's old band, at least the ground they're covering is some of the best of its kind. Not only was "Stuck Between Stations" the best song Finn had written since 97's "Nassau Coliseum," it marked what I consider the arrival of The Hold Steady proper. Their first two album were probably judged a bit harshly by me since they seemed to be more of a retread of Lifter Puller's concept transplanted into a less appealing millieu than a new band with undeniable ties to LP. "Stuck Between Stations" abandons the meta-narrative of those albums and as with the rest of Boys and Girls in America finds Finn carving out more general little anecdotes as opposed to serving a larger story, which allowed him to broaden his focus beyond the core players of the story and hone his story telling skills in smaller packets.

If it weren't so late I'd spend a few paragraphs delving into the song itself, and it's an embarassment of riches as far as analysis goes. In a nutshell though, it's almost like Finn's taking a look back at his previous work through older eyes and realizing just how vapid the people were. The 'sucking off each other at the demonstration/making sure their make-up's straight' line is as accurate a summation of the main characters of the whole Lifter Puller meta narrative as any: they were exactly the kind of people who would go to any sort of happening just to say they were there and completely missing the point of what was actually going on. His boys and girls in America may have had such a sad time together in retrospect, but at the time they were the ideals in their own eyes, only now that they're talked about in past tense the problems arise. Whne he brings John Berryman into the equation the connection feels loose, but when he concludes that section with the observation that 'we all go down and drown in the Mississippi River' it becomes a bit clearer: he sees Berryman in his creations and knows that no matter where he lead them through his own words it'd never end well. I may be grasping here, but that's exactly what they pay me the big bucks for

The Berryman section on it's own, though, is a marvelous little vignette. Finn's obviously reveres the man and paints a great picture of his last days complete with some of his best lyrics. 'Big heads and soft bodies make for lousy lovers' would be the highlight in any other song, but then there's 'you're pretty good with words/but words won't save your life/and they didn't so he died' to top it, mixing pathos, dark humour in the delivery of the last line and wit in the best Finn tradition. I don't think he could have done anything quite that poignant in his meta-narrative days, and even though his recent material lacks the callbacks and continuities for the most part he hasn't lost his knack for telling a story, and his voice is clear as ever in their telling.

Coming up tomorrow: More smart lyrics or the best way to insult the man you were replaced with.

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