This week’s Friday Recommends caused a great deal of enmity in the Vore household. As a result, it is being counterbalanced by a disrecommendation. Thank you.
In a recent appreciation for New York magazine, Joshua Ferris captured something about The Hold Steady that, for me anyway, was very true: I hated them at first. (Ferris is a bit more diplomatic, saying, “Initially, I disliked them immensely.”) He continues,
I couldn’t get into [lead singer Craig] Finn’s spit-spoken delivery. … Neither did I like their guitar sound. I thought it was too much like the cock-rock bullshit that had flogged me continuously at parties and on the radio during my marooned and hapless high-school years in the Chicago suburbs.
I disliked both these things too, but I also thought The Hold Steady sounded like a bad version of something else: Sub-Springsteen, mainly. They clearly seemed to be writing music in the wrong decade. Despite glowing recommendations from such astute music critics as Eric Bescak and my brother Dan, I was happy not to let The Hold Steady into my life, much less my iPod.
What changed? My brother saw them live in State College and said it was one of the best shows he’d ever seen. “They were so happy,” he said. “They smiled the whole time. Everything they played turned into a sing-along bar song.”
When Dan visited Cincinnati last year, I gave Boys and Girls in America another try, dabbling in Separation Sunday too. Dan was right: How could you not smile a little and sing along with the bawdy choruses of “Chips Ahoy!” or “Massive Nights”? I went from active dislike to grudging appreciation, if not yet open admiration.
But it wasn’t until Dan and I road-tripped to Nashville that I fell, completely and irreversibly, under The Hold Steady’s charm. I didn’t want to listen to anything else. We rolled down the windows and shouted along. Everyone had to know about The Hold Steady, whether they liked it or not! I called Erin at a rest stop.
“I have some bad news,” I said. “I now think The Hold Steady is great.”
“I’m changing the locks before you get back,” she said.
What ultimately won me over, moving me from fan to Hold Steady evangelist, was the acrobatic coupling of upbeat rock anthems and Craig Finn’s downer lyrics of American misfits; as Ferris puts it, “Their music is loud, raucous, and fun, but the stories they tell ache of desperation and loneliness.” One gem is “How a Resurrection Really Feels,” about Holly, who barges into church on Easter Sunday charging that the pastor tell his congregation the truth about salvation. For Holly, that has been saintly visions despite her drug-ridden past. Finn’s characters are, to borrow a Frederick Buechner turn-of-phrase, just like the rest of us, only more so. They’re pushed to extremes, swinging high and low, making terrible decisions but leaving the listener with the suspicion that they feel life a bit more keenly than the rest of us no matter how self-indulgent they may be. (Ferris calls them “songs about drugs and alcohol and partying as those things might be experienced by a practicing Catholic.”)
Stay Positive is a very good album. If you are dipping your toe into The Hold Steady for the first time, “Sequestered in Memphis” is about the easiest way in. Once you’ve appreciated just how hard it is to make the lyrics, “Subpoenaed in Texas/Sequestered in Memphis” into a feverishly catchy refrain, “Stay Positive,” “Lord, I’m Discouraged” and “Slapped Actress” all deliver the goods.
The album does have its missteps. “One For The Cutters” is an instant skipper; The Hold Steady does not need a harpsichord. And studio polish has smoothed off some of the rougher edges that gave previous albums much of their charm.
Eric Bescak saw The Hold Steady at the Pitchfork Music Festival last week and “spent the first three songs trying to will myself not to like these guys. And I can’t do it. It’s almost un-American.”
Do your patriotic duty. Don’t let the terrorists win. Listen to The Hold Steady, then keep listening. You can’t hate them forever.
Hold on a second, I just barfed a little in my mouth. And on the floor. And on Ben’s toothbrush.
I haven’t seen The Hold Steady (heretofore referred to as THS; they’re not worth the finger-strength for the letters) live, but I’ll take your word for it that they smile. Wanna know why? Because the Joker got to them first and carved a crooked crescent into their face. That’s for permanent y’alls.
I remember that phone call when Ben told me about that thing he did that he knew he had done, and that God knew about too. We hung up and I cried. Then I ran upstairs, got out my old photo albums and clutched the last remnants of what was good and pure about our love in my cold, dead hands. Oh cruel twist of fate! It wasn’t even April…
And Frederick Buechner? Really? I think you could insert a Joel Osteen at best into this crazy, backwards little love-story you have going here, Ben. But Buechner? Our Buechner? You’ve gone Bunny Brains.
At first, I disliked terrorists immensely. Guess what? I still do. And that’s how I feel about THS. I haven’t bothered to give their new (or old) record a spin, and I don’t plan to. I do, however, have an ever-evolving mental list of things I’d rather be doing than listening, supporting, or looking at THS. Without further ado:
HORRIBLE THINGS I’D RATHER DO THAN LISTEN, SUPPORT, OR LOOK AT THE HOLD STEADY:
- Take a bath in a tub filled entirely with Ben’s post-basketball game toxic sweat*
- Drink a quart of warm buttermilk
- Instantaneously grow my own 8-chinned gobbler
- Listen to Bonepony
- Sew my eyelids shut with fishing wire
- Eat a hair sandwich
- Eat scab popsicles
- Eat a pus-burger
- Rewatch Croupier
Before we were married, we listened to some marriage tapes about a husband’s and wife’s role in marriage. We immediately abandoned them after the speaker explained that submission in marriage was like the husband having 51%, the wife 49%. It’s been an ongoing joke between Ben and I ever since. My appeal to you, and whatever good sense you may posess, is to not let that oppressive, misogynistic 51% win. Don’t listen to THS for the women. And children.
*Toxic Sweat is a term coined & copyrighted by my friend Katie.