About… four years ago I got hooked on Regina Spektor and her entire songography was on repeat on my Zune for months. Now it’s the Hold Steady, and I’ve actually become unable to listen to anything else without wishing it was Craig Finn’s Jersey vibe and half-spoken lyrics against that 80s real-band-playing-real-instruments track. They’ve drawn comparisons to Springsteen and REM, the Tragically Hip and Sonic Youth, Ted Leo and even Billy Joel. They are all these things and more, people!
Here’s their one single, though I don’t even know if it got radio play; the opening track from “Boys and Girls in America,” Stuck Between Stations. Take it as a taster; if you like it, just keep rocking the fuck on with the rest of their discography.
There are four albums so far, and while individually they’re amazing, and while individual tracks on each album can also be isolated as a-fucking-mazing, there’s an even better story happening across the four albums, starring the same set of characters (Hallelujah [call her Holly] the teenage burnout, Charlemagne, the struggling drug dealer/pimp, and Gideon, the gang member — and a whole cast of other supporting characters who get drunk at music festivals, get fucked against dumpsters behind townie bars, get in knife fights, fall in love, party till it almost kills them, and wake up in Ybor City looking for a change).
The aesthetic is set up on the first record, “Almost Killed Me,” with a growling lyric-rich Craig Finn and some old-school hair band/punk guitar licks.
Then “Separation Sunday” really got the narrative ball rolling; it’s entirely a concept album based around Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon, slightly rawer than the other records and still totally lyric-based and groovy.
“Boys and Girls in America” is totally the most accessible record, and where lots of fans (including me!) got started. Three years ago or so, and came to town and played me “Citrus” and “Party Pit,” and I fell into this band crush headlong. Later when I went back to hear the two earlier albums I started reading the narrative and character development (as well as musical development and shifting styles), but for the first few months all I listened to was BaGiA. It’s where the single (above) is from, and it busted the Hold Steady into mainstream reviewers’ consciousness. Read a review from Pitchfork Media, here.
The newest record, “Stay Positive,” just came out a couple months ago, and while being an album totally addressed to summer ’08, is also a bookend to “Almost Killed Me,” which started with the song “Positive Jam” as a band intro. “Stay Positive,” after four records of some killer highs and some crushing lows, reminds us, “it’s one thing to start with a positive jam; it’s another thing to see it all through.” I can not stop listening to “Stay Positive,” occasionally clicking back to tracks on the earlier albums just to remember how they pay off in the most recent record.
Got samples from all four albums. To wit:
From “Almost Killed Me”:
- “Barfruit Blues,” where we meet Hallelujah, Charlemagne, and Gideon at their lowest
- “Killer Parties,” about the Twin City set looking for the best parties and then suffering the consequences. Also waking up in Ybor City.
- “Knuckles,” a great song about bad-rep boys and liars.
- “Certain Songs,” just, everything they stand for and everything we remember from college jukeboxes and bar band bars. Certain songs, they get so scratched into our souls. This is a big favorite among the fans, and one of the sweetest, most melodic songs in the set, after “Citrus” off BaGinA.
From “Separation Sunday,” the first five tracks off the album. Like the first chapter of a book, and meant to be read all in a row.
From “Boys and Girls in America”:
- “Stuck Between Stations,” the aforementioned single and the tale of being a target demographic for about fifteen minutes.
- “First Night,” a beautiful and nostalgic look back at the glory days of Holly and Charlemagne and that first night when it all went down.
- “Party Pit,” just fucking AWESOME and fun and a sing-along song. Gonna walk around and drink some more.
- “You Can Make Him Like You,” a predecessor to other songs about party girls trying to tough it out among the dealers, see also “Two Handed Handshake.”
- “Massive Nights,” another sing-along-song and the updated check in to “Killer Parties,” waking up in Ybor City yet again.
- “Citrus,” a ballad unlike anything else they do. Lost in fog and love and faithless fear; I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere.
- “Chillout Tent,” a three minute play about kids at a music festival in Western Mass.
From “Stay Positive”:
- “Constructive Summer”: This record brings us out of the gutter and back to a place where we can stay positive: let this be my annual reminder that we can all be something bigger.
- Sequestered in Memphis”: another party travelogue song, a run-in with the law and hooking up with some chick at some place where she cat sits, and everything is fried.
- “One for the Cutters,” friggin’ GENIUS. Here’s a bright college girl at Oberlin (or somewhere Oberlin-like) who, when there weren’t any parties, sometimes partied with the townies, and gets into some townie shit. It’s a cute little town, boutiques and cafes, her friends all seem nice, she was getting good grades, but when she came home for Christmas, she just seemed distant and different.
- “Yeah Sapphire,” or why this album is the one with the sing-along songs. Rock on.
- “Both Crosses,” because this band is considered one of the great Catholic guilt records, riffing on that original Catholic-girl chaser, Billy Joel.
- “Magazines,” a really incisive appreciation of what happens to insecure underage party girls with body image and daddy isues.
- “Ask Her For Adderall,” my current anthem about when you just can’t do people anymore and you’re on that slippery slope, and Holly/Hallelujah finally in a place to judge another burnout.
- “Cheyenne Sunrise,” another road song, from St. Paul to Ybor City by way of Cheyenne, too small, yet escapist.
- “Two Handed Handshake,” part three of the bonus staying-positive tracks, looking back on those boys and girls in America and figuring out why they have such a sad time together. Boys, I’m pretty sure that we can put it back together, and girls, you gotta try to be nice to one another.
AND… the secret hidden tracks:
Download the .rar file here, in case you missed it up top.
And, because they’re a narrative band, spend some time reading the short stories that are Craig Finn’s brilliant lyrics, here: Hold Steady lyrics.
There are a ton of songs I’ve left off, particularly from the first two records (two of my all-time favorite songs off “Almost Killed Me” aren’t in this zip file… they’re yours to find!), so you would do well to buy all four at your leisure, or whichever one jumps out at you based on these tracks I’ve uploaded.
Then. THEN. I want fiction about Holly and Charlemagne and Gideon (and his gang with the same tattoos), fiction about Hostile, Massachusetts and Ybor City, fiction about the obscure bar bands and jukebox tracks and hard drugs and townies.
And then we gotta wait two years before they put out another record, if they’re keeping with their trends. I have no expectations of getting sick of these four any time soon, but then, it’s impossible to get perspective on those things.
Anyway, stay positive, build something this summer, sing along with the sing-along songs, and hold steady.