I'm disappointingly normal," Craig Finn insists. "I watch a lot of baseball. I'm a huge Twins fan. I listen to music, hang out with my wife, drink beer, whatever. It's very average-American."
The Hold Steady frontman may indeed be normal, but his band is anything but. In fact, the New York-based quintet is one of the most exciting and erudite acts to emerge in recent years. And the characters who populate Finn's highly literary lyrical tales are tattooed Catholic girls, pathetic pimps and failed drug dealers -- all seeking salvation through pilfering crosses on subways and smoking dope on the banks of the Mississippi.
"Our fans are always extremely disappointed that I'm not more like the characters I write about," Finn says.
In spite of his professed dullness, Finn could never be accused of making mundane music. His previous band, the art-punk outfit Lifter Puller, formed while he was a student at Boston College. Its marriage of indie rock and Beat poetry quickly caught the ears of critics and fans, and drew comparisons to Archers of Loaf, Pavement and Girls Against Boys.
In 2000, the Pullers went their separate ways, and Finn and bassist Tad Kubler relocated to New York. Kubler switched from four strings to six and, with the addition of drummer Judd Counsell and bassist Galen Polivka, the Hold Steady was born. The group's debut, Almost Killed Me, grabbed loads of critical accolades, but not as many SoundScans. For this year's mind-blowing Separation Sunday, Bobby Drake replaced Counsell, and keyboardist Franz Nicolay joined the ranks to add some stunning piano and organ licks.
The Hold Steady sound is, at its heart, classic rock with a raw, raucous energy and studied sloppiness. Where Lifter Puller charted indie-rock territory with willfully angular riffs and rhythms, the Hold Steady borrows elements from more accessible sources, as Finn notes: "It's less indie and more classic, with a lowercase Œc.' There's less tendency to do something for the sake of being weird."
In fact, there's something pleasingly familiar about Separation Sunday. Kubler's guitar solo on "Cattle and the Creeping Things" could have been lifted from Boston's first album, while Nicolay's insistent piano line on "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" resembles vintage Roy Bittan backing up Bruce Springsteen. "It might be more predictable," Finn admits. "But hopefully it's more comforting, too."
Amid all that comforting predictability, Finn's lyrics make the Hold Steady stand out. His stories combine Lou Reed's narco-journalism with Donald Fagen's cynical indictments and the barbed wit of King Missile's John Hall, while his delivery borrows David Yow's unhinged quirkiness and Mike Doughty's hip-hop-inflected phrasing. Finn's vocals at first appear to bear no relation to the music that accompanies them, but, with extended exposure, the juxtaposition creates a unique kind of tension and excitement, like Raymond Chandler taking over for Paul Westerberg in the mid-'80s Replacements.
For Finn, the ability to be a writer and still feed off the energy of a rock-and-roll show is the ultimate high. "There's this element of gratification that you get in rock as a lyricist," he explains. "I have friends who are real poets, and they come to New York to do a reading, and it's a really big deal, and there's only thirty people there.
"There's something about having people sing the words back to you," he goes on, noting the difference. "The element of performance is very important to me. If I was just doing this for myself, I'd never leave the practice space."
Inspiration for Finn's writing can come from anywhere -- personal history, novels, even junior-high yearbooks. The term "hoodrat," for example, is one of the recurring motifs on Separation Sunday, appearing on three of the album's eleven songs. "I was looking through my wife's sixth-grade yearbook," he recounts. "She kinda went to this urban school, and she had written under the boys' pictures what gang affiliation each boy had. Under some of the girls, she had written Œhoodrat.' I hope people don't take it the wrong way. It's kinda mean, but it's meant to be conversational."
Finn's meticulous and writerly approach to his lyrics is impossible to ignore. Alliteration, internal rhymes and clever wordplay abound on Separation Sunday. Recurring characters like the hoodrat, a girl named Hallelujah and a pimp/drug dealer named Charlemagne (hello, Steely Dan!) develop throughout the course of the album. Carefully selected themes and phrases appear and reappear, with references to crosses, being born again and various saints. And when religious epiphany fails, there's the ever-present surrogate of "getting high as hell." A wry and understated humor guides the proceedings, and the writer even manages to pull some very cool meta-fictional tricks that twist time and point of view. Throughout the album, allusions to popular songs by folks like Kate Bush, the Boss and the Pogues, among others, provide an evocative cultural backdrop for Finn's portraits of beautiful losers.
Raised as a Catholic, Finn has a strong belief that a little suffering must precede any reward. For the Hold Steady, adversity means being confined to the confusing artistic ghetto of fawning critical adulation and indifferent commercial snubbing. While Almost Killed Me landed the band on many critics' "best of" lists for 2004, the honors were left-handed compliments that highlighted the band's commercial failings: "The Ten Best Albums You Didn't Hear" (Spin); "Best Records You Didn't Hear" (Rolling Stone); "10 Records You Missed in 2004" (Magnet); and "Most Underrated Band" (Earshot).
Finn laughs off the critical pity party. "I'd rather be the worst record of the year that everybody heard," he jokes. "It would be better for my bank account."
Even so, for now, the Hold Steady's payoff continues to come in the form of rave reviews. Music pundit Jon Pareles recently lauded Separation Sunday in the New York Times; the estimable Chuck Klosterman named Almost Killed Me among the top albums of this century in the May issue of Esquire, noting that "You will like this album if you used to like AC/DC but now you just read a lot"; and Blender's Nick Catucci distinguished Separation Sunday as "The CD We're Totally Gay For."
Looks like being normal isn't that disappointing after all.