Thanks to the success of Garden State, one of my neighbors has been inspired to blast The Shins’ “New Slang” from his stereo at least once a week. It would be much worse, had I actually shared a wall with this obnoxious specimen, but hearing it from across the courtyard is no less irritating. Personally, I believe that the more people that love The Shins, the better. But does it have to be given the Dr. Dre treatment? It’s not even a party song. Not even close. But still, I am forced to listen to James Mercer’s falsetto at an ungodly volume, coupled with drunken reverberating chit-chat, more often than I would care to. I can put up with it when it’s only three minutes a week. But should this become a daily occurrence, I’m arming myself. That motherfucker is going to have to do battle with The Hold Steady.
If you abuse a pretty ballad to show off your stereo, you’re going to have to face New York’s rockingest combo. And you’re going to lose. You know why? Because The Hold Steady is louder. The Hold Steady has more soul. And The Hold Steady is better.
Following up last year’s debut, Almost Killed Me, the NYC quintet channels the blue collar stadium rock of Bruce Springsteen and the punk-inspired chaos of The Replacements on Separation Sunday. With some beefy power chords and greasy Hammond B-3, The Hold Steady plays good old fashioned rock `n’ roll without pretense, leaving only one truly awesome rock album.
On Separation Sunday, The Hold Steady makes a rowdy happy hour ruckus, but sacrifices nothing in the way of cleverness or intelligence. They’re not playing an “ironic” type of barroom rock, they’re doing it the way it’s meant to be done, albeit with an English degree. While the rest of the band is clanging out a mighty rock thunder in “Hornets! Hornets!” and “Banging Camp,” vocalist Craig Finn spits pop-culture referencing one-liners in his rangeless growl. He may not be much of a singer, but whatever he does he does it well, spouting lines like “later on we did some sexy things, took a couple photographs and carved them into wood reliefs” and “Holly wore a string around her finger/she said it helps her remember all the nights that we got over/and besides, it ties her outfit all together.” If Bob Seger had a mastery of the English language like that, his Detroit pilsner rock might not be so bad.
The Hold Steady’s music is a celebration. It’s fiery, powerful and irresistible. And it’s smarter than Kings of Leon will ever be. Tad Kubler’s guitar is as loud and distortion soaked as they come, while newly tenured keyboardist Franz Nicolay pulls the band through Motown as Finn redirects his lyrics to his old hometown of Minneapolis. Finn’s tales are tall, but they’re backed with an equally large soundsystem behind them. As he puts it on “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Nite,” “we mix our own mythologies we push out through PA systems.” Amen, brother.
Don’t get me wrong, The Hold Steady’s rock `n’ roll is as enjoyable as it comes. But it’s a hell of a lot louder than “New Slang.” So if my neighbor feels like playing that song just a little more often, I’ll raise my glass and crank up “Charlemagne in Sweatpants.” And then he’d know better than to mess with The Hold Steady.
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band – Greetings From Asbury Park
Replacements – Pleased to Meet Me
Rocket From the Crypt – RFTC
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.