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Hold Steady’s creativity shines in latest effort

Joe Lattal | Thursday, September 8, 2005

After the release of “Separation Sunday” last spring, The Hold Steady became the kings of low and medium market media.

The band received a “best new music” tag from the influential Pitchfork Media, as well as an interview. They performed on “Last Call with Carson Daly.” In Target’s latest ad campaign, a series of online videos called “Odds Against Seven,” college freshmen drive across state lines to see The Hold Steady play live.

However, none of the hype matters if you can’t get used to frontman Craig Finn’s hard-hitting yet rangeless voice. His half speaking, half singing delivery is a “love-it-or-hate-it” stain on the New York by-way-of Minneapolis band’s debut. It takes time to get used to Finn’s voice, or at least time to tune it out. Though, the man can write good poetry. His he-said-she-said lyrics dress up an album driven by an overused narrative – traveling around the country and watching stuff happen.

Here’s the good news. “Separation Sunday” has some of the most fun guitar riffs from the last year. The music recalls themes from nearly every era of rock, with distortion, Hammond organ and piano. Each song appeals to large audiences – upbeat, but not heavy enough to offend anyone. None of the songs drag, and there is enough variety between each song to keep the story interesting. (Which is good because Finn’s voice never changes.)

An a cappella opening of “Hornets! Hornets!” starts off the album before exploding into a guitar-driven verse about bitter post-breakup thoughts: “She said I won’t be much for conversation … I kinda dig these awkward silences.”

The track, “Cattle and Creeping Things,” makes it apparent that this is really how Finn sings. It wasn’t just one song. Finn refuses to be distracted by the triumphant and hectic chord changes of the chorus, always maintaining his storytelling tone.

“Your Little Hoodrat Friend” is the strongest song on the album and also the choice for the band’s performance on Carson Daly’s show. It is the best song because of the likeable, brief, palm-muted measures in the chorus immediately after the simple chord progressions. It is the strongest because it’s the closest Finn comes to actually singing a tune.

“Stevie Nix” and “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night” are other highlights on the album. Both bank on the latest trend in indie rock – songs about songs. Each works better than the Statistics’ “Final Broadcast” or Trail of Dead’s “Worlds Apart.” The Hold Steady comes off more sincere and Finn’s storytelling delivery makes each track more interesting.

Not many bands sound like The Hold Steady, and it’s probably because they don’t really want to sound like them. The description of the band is simple -a singer who tells stories over rock music.

But their creative geniuses were aiming in that direction. They remain the one band people can be certain aren’t lip-synching on stage.