Of course I’m a bit biased here in that I think that Lifter Puller is, on the whole, a much better band than The Hold Steady. If I hadn’t been indoctrinated into the cult of LFTR PLLR prior to the release of THS’ debut album I might feel differently, but really it’s Finn’s former band that hits a lot more of the stuff I like in my music. The music is more angular and bass-driven, the lyrics are the sort of dense, literate barrage that plenty of hip hop MCs would kill for and the overarching narrative gives it a sort of unity not only within each individual album but across the whole of their too brief discography. Even though The Hold Steady could be said to embody some of those qualities to some extent, there’s something about the whole package as put across by Lifter Puller that gives them the edge. Finn in particular seems much more in his element as part of Lifter Puller, and his word-drunk delivery married to the continued narrative that culminates on Fiestas + Fiascos is truly a wondrous thing to witness.
The story that Finn tells across the three LFTR PLLR albums isn’t something that I have a great handle on, but the players are pretty well defined by this point. There’s a quartet of youth, the narrator, Katrina, Juanita and Jenny, nightclub owner Nightclub Dwight and a local loan shark/drug dealer known as The Eyepatch Guy who all seem to move in the same circle to the point where at the end of the album The Eyepatch Guy asks the narrator to burn down Dwight’s club (The Nice Nice) to remind him of a debt. Prior to that there’s all manner of typical college kid antics; police chases, roofies, gay sex, bonfires…you know, typical things that a twenty something with more money than brains would engage in if they ran in the right circles. There’s not exactly character development here, the LFTR PLLR saga isn’t a novel after all, but part of the joys of Fiestas + Fiascos is in drawing the connections between the events described therein to what was discussed in past Lifter Puller albums (the fire was mentioned back on their self-titled debut, Jenny ‘takin’ off her tights in the taxi’ calls back to “I Like the Lights”).
The other part of the joy is listening to Finn work himself into a verbally dexterous frenzy when the mood strikes him. This part isn’t in the same state that it was on the bands’ previous album, 1997’s Half Dead and Dynamite, but there are still plenty of inspired quotables on Finn’s part. For instance:
- ‘I’m like the Pied Piper/Make the kids into rats and lead the rats to the water/I turn teens into fiends, lead ‘em straight to the slaughter’
- ‘One night Dwight got all goofy on the roofies/Now they all call him The Fiddler on the Roof’
- ‘We went from upstairs at the Nice Nice up to
up by 15th/and Jenny got dressed as they circled the block/Gave the secret knock and stuck her hand in the mailslot’ Franklin
- ‘My name’s Juanita but the guys they call me LL Cool J/’Cuz I’ve been here for years/and you can’t call it a comeback if you’ve never even been away’
- ‘We were born on these boardwalks and we just started talking/and there’s laws against loitering so we just started walking’
Not quite as top form as he’d been previously, but Finn’s command of the language of his characters sells it just as much as the word-drunk barrages for Half Dead.
Meanwhile, the songs themselves are less sprawling than before (only “Nice Nice” and “Lie Down on Landsdowne” are longer than 3 and a half minutes) and the conciseness works well in a lot of the cases. Sure there’s nothing like “Nassau Coliseum” or “Viceburgh” as a result, but when the tradeoff gives you something like “Manpark”’s 2:33 wind through what sounds like three or four different songs or the straightforwardly catchy “Nice Nice” or the affecting comedown of “Katrina and the K-Hole” it’s easy to forgive the lack of truly cathartic moments – though the last minute or so of “The Flex and the Buff Result” makes for a perfect ending in spite of the turn into horrible production. There’s also a lot more reliance on keyboards here, foreshadowing the lead ole that Franz Nicolay would wind up playing in The Hold Steady, but it’s rare that they detract from the songs themselves. The out of nowhere half-riff that punctuates the ‘rats to the water’ line above really makes that section shine and the interplay between the buzzing guitar and the warmer keyboards on “Touch My Stuff” really elevates the track.
The fact that this is still so much of an obscurity in light of Finn’s newfound popularity is a bit of a crime in my eyes. If you like The Hold steady at all, you owe it to yourself to hear as much Lifter Puller as you can find. Trust me, it’s well worth it to hear what Finn can do without as much inhibition and restraint as he shows in his new band.