What Is It About The Hold Steady?

A friend wrote me the following inquiry about my obsession with The Hold Steady:

OK, I know I’m not as hip as I used to be or at least as I thought I was back when. But I’ve been trying out The Hold Steady per your advice and the advice of many others whose musical tastes are usually spot on. And I think I’m missing something.

Don’t get me wrong, the lyrics are clever and funny, but the music itself sounds rather pedestrian and the melodies tend to blend together. I like it, but it reminds me of how I feel about Beck albums: good for a couple listens and then I will never play them again.

What am I missing? Too many people who like the same stuff I do love this band and I want to like them too. Am I lame now?

My response? First, I reminded him that I teach an improv class and I’m 43 years old. If anyone’s lame, it’s me.

He’s probably right about The Hold Steady’s music sometimes sounding pedestrian. And The Hold Steady has the same problem that the Red Hot Chili Peppers have — namely, if you don’t like the front man’s lyrics or voice, you’re not going to like the band. I think Anthony Keidis is one of the worst frontmen in rock history (that paper-thin voice, those puerile lyrics), and despite the obvious musicianship of everyone else in the band, I find them unlistenable. On the other hand, I love Craig Finn’s voice (I don’t think the man has actually sung a note on any album) and I adore his lyrics.

Here’s my suggestion to anyone wanting to “get” The Hold Steady. Download “Separation Sunday” and listen to it “front to back” (as if we can do that anymore) in one sitting. It’s a concept album, but not in the pretentious ham-fisted way that Pink Floyd’s or (gasp) Styx’s albums are concept albums. It’s what a concept album would sound like if some mad scientist combined Jane’s Addiction with Bruce Springsteen into a single band and that band made a concept album. I’ve actually compared it — out loud and in public, no less — to Eliot’s “The Waste Land” (which, if anything, makes ME sound pretentious — but making myself sound pretentious isn’t all that difficult for me to do, as some of you may know).

I probably should add, in a bit of intellectual honesty, that part of the appeal of this band for me is that I look like I could be a member of it. These guys ain’t the Jonas Brothers. No Tiger Beat covers for them.

Catch The Hold Steady on the David Letterman show tonight. A few hours, in fact.

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