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] **
  • Thrashing Thru the Passion [Frenchkiss, 2019] B+
  • Open Door Policy [Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers, 2021] B+
  • The Price of Progress [Thirty Tigers/Positive Jams, 2023] B+

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") **

Thrashing Thru the Passion [Frenchkiss, 2019]
The return of keyboardist, sparkplug, prose moonlighter, and de facto second banana Franz Nicolay signals and embodies a new burst of energy from alt-rock lifers' favorite bar band. As Craig Finn devotes his solo work to loser sociology, the band where he makes his nut can turn its full attention to its lifelong passion: rock and roll with literary standards. "Hold Steady at the Comfort Inn/Mick Jagger at the Mandarin/Once you get good you can get it wherever you are." As Hemingway said to Donna Summer after rhyming "Cafe Select" with "discotheque": "It's a living." B+

Open Door Policy [Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers, 2021]
Craig Finn made his name as a musical storyteller with plots that always seemed to involve the drug life. Early on he specialized in alt-rock kids, but as he aged--and he was already past 30 when his band went public--his characters did too, with fewer escape hatches built into their compromised bacchanals. Barely getting by by now, many of his subjects--especially those chronicled under the Hold Steady brand, with the solo albums somewhat rangier--have been around the block so many times the sidewalk feels like a treadmill. So it's notable that on this album there are fewer outright losers. The title track reports from a party hosted by a minor billionaire; one narrator brags that he sells software to "hospitals and local government"; Magdalena's thing with the singer in L.A. fell apart but she still has it in her to head back to Scranton and clean up at her girlfriend's place. I find this so refreshing I wish everybody involved good luck. B+

The Price of Progress [Thirty Tigers/Positive Jams, 2023]
Most of these songs are at the very least interesting, testimony to how deftly Craig Finn changes up his narrative gift. As he's gotten older, not only have his strugglers and stragglers gotten older too, but they've remained discernibly different from each other as their numbers increase. On this album the drug life is no longer front and center, and the musical life is not so much detailed as referenced in passing. A few fleeting protagonists seem to be mercenaries in unspecified conflicts or rootless hustlers ready to break the law in pursuits more evoked than described. Love, which Finn has always made room for, is vestigial if that, and if any of these over-30s has kids they're keeping it from their parole officers. But there's more to him than the downside--now and then a Mr. or Ms. Big gets a cameo. And a passing reference to the unreliability of municipal bonds hints tantalizingly at middle-class vistas I wish he'd detail someday. B+

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