Here's a good rule of thumb: Never trust what critics have to say about music, since most critics hardly trust what other critics have to say about music. Here's another good rule of thumb: Ignore that first rule if said music critic is talking about the Hold Steady.
The Brooklyn-based band is not only one of the most written about acts in the country (its past three albums have landed on year-end best-of lists for three years running), but it's also one of the coolest rock 'n' roll bands that most music fans haven't heard of. That might be because the Hold Steady is made up of five thirty-something, relatively unattractive dudes and fronted by a guy who can't really sing. It might also have something to do with the fact that most people actually don't trust critics, who have been raving about the group for years.
"I guess you could if you let it," says keyboardist Franz Nicolay when asked if the disconnect between critical and commercial success ever weighs on him. "I mean, we are one of the best-reviewed bands out there. That's a pretty good start."
The Hold Steady
With Heartless Bastards, 8 p.m. Tuesday, May 22, Ogden Theatre, 935 East Colfax Avenue, $15, 303-830-8497.
At the moment, Nicolay is relaxing in his London hotel room just a few hours before another sold-out concert. He relishes playing in England because the headlining acts go on so early that he's been getting the best tour sleep he's ever had. Like the rest of the Hold Steady, he's not a conventional-looking rocker. He looks more like a Musketeer with his thin goatee and English-style mustache, the ends curled up ever so slightly. But he does add piano-man-style flourish to every Hold Steady jam, which has led to the group's being compared to the Boss on more than one occasion.
"It's certainly flattering," Nicolay admits. "Everyone in the band is a Springsteen fan. I don't hear it as much as a lot of people do, but sometimes I think that's just shorthand for 'rock band with piano or wordy lyrics.'"
Those "wordy lyrics" belong to frontman Craig Finn, who, as already mentioned, is not what most would call a singer. His style has been called "spoken word," but that's not entirely accurate, either. See, he can't carry a tune. Imagine Elvis Costello if he'd gargled with asbestos for a few hours. Still, Finn is one of the best songwriters working today. That may not translate into writing radio hits, but he is penning lyrics that could, in some circles, be called short fiction or even a kind of poetry. Finn writes concept albums, he quotes Jack Kerouac, and he "sings" about poet John Berryman.
"There are certain kinds of albums, in the same way there are certain books and movies, that benefit from relistens, that you hear something new from every time," Nicolay says. "I think Craig's lyrics have always had that quality."
But in their own way, Finn's may have actually held the band back. It's taken a few albums for the rest of the group to figure out a way to set them to music in a way that totally works. And with last year's Boys and Girls in America, Finn, Nicolay, guitarist Tad Kubler, bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake fully figured that out.
"I think one of the big goals was to integrate the music and the lyrics a little better," Nicolay explains about what led up to the recording of Boys and Girls. "The quality on the first two albums, the lyrics and Craig's performance of them, were in a separate world from the music. Especially with Separation Sunday. It was written so quickly that, in a lot of cases, the lyrics weren't done by the time we recorded."
In other words, music and lyrics had nothing to do with each other. This is sort of why a lot of folks have called Finn a spoken-word artist, since most lyricists write their words to music.
"Given a little more time and a little more familiarity with each other..." Nicolay trails off before changing direction. He's explained this already: He and Drake only officially joined the Hold Steady six weeks before the group's second album, Separation Sunday, was recorded, after the music was mostly written, which was pretty much how it worked when he played on the band's debut, The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, too. Therefore, Boys and Girls is the first Hold Steady album that belongs equally to everyone in the band.
"A lot of it had to do with introducing a little more melody, first into the music," Nicolay says, citing how the band started compensating in a way for its singer's vocal shortcomings. "Background vocals and piano certainly allow for greater melody between the riffs and lyrics, too. I think that gave Craig sort of a platform to add more melody into his performance."
The album has "just got a lot more depth and dynamics.... I think maybe for the first time, the music has a similar quality [to Craig's lyrics]. There's a lot of stuff on there you wouldn't hear until the second, seventh, or twelfth listen."
The hard work has paid off, since Boys and Girls feels cohesive and whole -- the perfect marriage of great literature and great rock. Everyone agrees, from the critics you shouldn't trust to late-night talk-show hosts who keep booking the Hold Steady. So why haven't you seen their names rocketing up the Billboard charts?
"Commercially speaking, the only reason to get upset about record sales is if you think you're going to make a lot of money off of record sales, and I just don't think that's the reality of the business right now," Nicolay concedes. "It's exciting to sell a lot of records, but the difference between selling 50,000 records and 100,000 isn't much. The reaction we get from people coming to the live shows is how you make a living as a band -- and that's somewhere we're definitely seeing amazing growth over the past couple of years."
SEPARATION SUNDAY (Frenchkiss, 2005)
The Hold Steady's sophomore effort might not be a concept album, per se, but it comes pretty damn close, as every song revolves around singer/lyricist Craig Finn's famously confused Catholic heroine Hallelujah/Holly, who has some pretty naughty habits, we learn: "It's not like she's enslaved/It's more like she's enthralled," he tells us of her drug habit. An epic of lost youth and a junkie's crusade for redemption, Separation Sunday is an album in novel form -- or is it the other way around? Every sort of miscreant pops up as copious amounts of drugs are consumed, a modern-day John the Baptist armed with nitrous tanks dunks Holly's head into a river, and Holly ends up born again -- spiritually, maybe physically. There are those who have complained that the "story" isn't as accessible as Almost Killed Me, or especially Boys and Girls in America, but its complexities -- along with Holly -- are what makes it the Hold Steady's triumph.
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BOYS AND GIRLS IN AMERICA (Vagrant Records, 2006)
Of the Hold Steady's three albums, Boys and Girls in America's musicianship is the strongest, marrying the ever-present influence of the Boss to early indie rock and providing much more contagious melodies to guide Finn's lyrics. However, Holly and many of the characters who populated the band's first two albums have vanished except for a few guest appearances. The Hold Steady are still lamenting the same subject matter -- although love in some form or another seems to be a more pervasive topic than ever before - but the album lacks the cohesiveness of Sunday and the visceral punch of an equally unfocused Almost Killed Me. Nevertheless, the balance it strikes between the two is about as much fun as classic rock made in the new millennium can get.
ALMOST KILLED ME (Frenchkiss, 2004).
The Hold Steady's debut is a loser chronicle of skaters, ravers and the sort of youthful malcontents that make up all-ages crowds -- a reaction to the self-indulgent state of American youth. It's the sort of rock that makes laptop musicians look kind of, well, silly. While it's certainly the most scattered of the trio of releases, that lends itself to the surprising force of Finn's poetic, half-sung lyrics and the Twin City travails of Holly, Charlemagne and many of the other characters Finn hasn't been able to let go of.