Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

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The Hold Steady

  • Almost Killed Me [Frenchkiss, 2004] *
  • Separation Sunday [Frenchkiss, 2005] A-
  • Boys and Girls in America [Vagrant, 2006] A-
  • Stay Positive [Vagrant, 2008] B+
  • A Positive Rage [Vagrant, 2009] A-
  • Heaven Is Whenever [Vagrant, 2010] ***
  • Teeth Dreams [Razor & Tie, 2014] **

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Almost Killed Me [Frenchkiss, 2004]
Craig Finn lifts and pulls more cruddy details from his intimacy with crystal meth and his consuming desire to rhyme Nina Simone with Neil Schon ("Killer Parties," "Sweet Payne") *

Separation Sunday [Frenchkiss, 2005]
Confession booths are for rosary twiddlers, but Bible lore is as American as Sunday school, so I take the scriptural references as tokens of Craig Finn's quality education. And since in my Sunday school, papists like my grandpa were going to burn forever because they never got "born again," I'm glad Finn's guys and gals get "born again" too. At bottom, his people are my people, and I wish them the same shot at heaven my adolescent Billy Graham experience guarantees my reprobate ass. Which is to say that this literature with power chords addresses not only the crucial matter of vanishing bohemias as cultural myth but also the crucial matter of re-emerging spiritualities as cultural fact. From "Lord to be 17 forever" to "Lord to be 33 forever" is a long road, and Finn is old enough now to know it keeps getting longer--and to spread the living gospel that 33 is too good to throw away on myths. A-

Boys and Girls in America [Vagrant, 2006]
Sasha Frere-Jones has nominated the Mountain Goats, and now the Decemberists come to mind even though their songs are fictive rather than reported/recollected/observed, but for me the nearest parallel to this band is the Drive-By Truckers. Both bands match the descriptions they stuff into their traditional narrative structures to a specific rock tradition: Skynyrd-Allmans for the Truckers' songs of the South, Springsteen for Hold Steady's new generation of shadows in the backstreets. That said, this album lays it on too thick--all right already with the keyb flourishes, which suit their mawkish new emo label all too well--and declines the thematic burden of Separation Sunday. As stories, on the other hand, the songs could convince anyone that kids have a hard time--without giving whiners any sort of go-ahead to throw their lives away. All accomplished without directly referencing ye olde rock-and-roll lifestyle--unless you count "Chillout Tent," in which two strangers freak at a festival and live to make out about it. But that's about fans, not bands. This band is for the fans. A-

Stay Positive [Vagrant, 2008]
Craig Finn's aim is leaner rock and deeper narrative--sharper hooks, heavier consequences. Formally, this is the only progress that makes sense for them, and sometimes they make it count. "Stay Positive" nails the travails of the aging rock band harder than "Start Me Up" because it's about fans, and "Constructive Summer" craftily confuses different ways to get hammered. Both grab hold from their opening riffs, too. But it's one thing to understand that you're too good for piano flourishes, another to find alternative means of roiling the collective gut every time. B+

A Positive Rage [Vagrant, 2009]
On Halloween 2006, a decade-plus after choosing the unremunerative lifework of hanging around Bar Band Nation without falling in, Craig Finn climaxes a tour that's had him selling out thousand-seaters and knows it's too soon to stop now. Like the Raspberries when they were in it for the hits not the sales, he's in it for the house not the gate. And he's so psyched as he watches those houses get bigger that he invests his excellent story-songs with an emotion their excellent studio versions have never matched--though maybe now they will. A-

Heaven Is Whenever [Vagrant, 2010]
No, actually, their best songs weren't always about rock and roll ("We Can Get Together," "Rock Problems"). ***

Teeth Dreams [Razor & Tie, 2014]
Living off the low life too long ("Wait a While," "Almost Everything") **

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