The Over/Under: The Hold Steady

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When the Hold Steady formed in 2003, part of its mission statement was to combat the scourge of plastic dance rock and ’80s revivalism happening in its adopted hometown of New York City. Can a lovable band of underdogs produce such a thing as an “overrated” song? Given the near-unanimous critical praise of the Hold Steady’s output (MAGNET named Boys And Girls In America 2006’s finest album; read our feature on the band from that same year), we’re obliged to explore the possibility.

:: The Five Most Overrated Hold Steady Songs
1. “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”
Taken in its entirety, 2005’s Separation Sunday is a near-unassailable album, an instant-classic treatise on adolescence, drugs, religion and punk-rock love. But when you take it apart song by song, certain puzzle pieces look jagged and weird. “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” is the obvious pull quote from the album’s narrative—easily identifiable chorus, repetition of the song title to the point of nausea—but it’s also the least interesting. The female backing vocals on the chorus are a little too high in the mix and sound overly brassy, though they’re tame in comparison to the aural carnage “Chillout Tent” later wrought.

2. “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night”
I’m calling this one overrated because fans seem to be disproportionately drawn to it. Maybe they think the title is catchy or funny or they like Chicago or they don’t like Chicago or they’ve heard of a place called Chicago. In both Lifter Puller and the Hold Steady, Craig Finn has upheld a fine tradition of shouting out cities; he’s one of very few lyricists who could probably list a Rand McNally road atlas as an influence. Over a fairly rote, Thin Lizzy-ish guitar riff, this song just kind of stomps in place. Writer Nelson Algren (who lived in Chicago) and W.B. Yeats (who did not live in Chicago) are namedropped for reasons unapparent to me. A crucial lyric in the song seems to be, “They had cigarettes where there were supposed to be eyes,” like it’s a punch line or a profound observation. Have no idea what it means. Sounds like a description of a Jawa.

3. “Citrus”
Boys And Girls In America was a tipping point for the Hold Steady, the moment at which Finn and Koob (that’s guitarist Tad Kubler) realized they needed to start swinging for radio play and interstitials for TV sports programming. Not in a crass, commercial way; more in the way that thirtysomething dudes realize it’s time to give a fuck. Sometimes the gambit worked (“Chips Ahoy!” charges out of a car-stereo speaker like you wouldn’t believe), and sometimes you got the aforementioned “Chillout Tent” (a Grease-y “Summer Lovin’” duet) and acoustic alcohol ballad “Citrus.” It’s kind of like they were going for the Replacements’ “Here Comes A Regular” and wound up with Extreme’s “More Than Words” rearranged for frathouse consumption.

4. “Sequestered In Memphis”
2008’s Stay Positive is my least favorite Hold Steady album. It feels rushed and choppy, like the band just needed some new songs to tour behind. Which is not a sin; it’s just not great art. I never mind when the Hold Steady recycles itself (which mostly consists of Finn repeating lines used in previous songs; more on this later), but Stay Positive single “Sequestered In Memphis” finds the group, for the first time, recycling someone else. It’s like E Street Band Bingo: the piano line, the saxophone, the paraphrasing of the “Thunder Road” line “You ain’t a beauty, but hey, you’re all right” (which Finn already accomplished in detail with the previous album’s “Southtown Girls”). It’s all a bit too populist and far removed from the Minneapolis-punk silliness and goofy inside jokes that made Lifter Puller and early Hold Steady a cleverly constructed snowglobe of Finn’s real and imaginary life.

5. “One For The Cutters”
Again, this isn’t a wildly popular Hold Steady song, but someone—maybe someone in the band itself—rated it highly enough to be included on an album (Stay Positive) when, in fact, this song deserves no quarter, no sanctuary, no audience, no airplay. It’s a fucking harpsichord song. When I first heard it, I thought the Hold Steady was pulling a Spinal Tap “Stonehenge” joke. I pray to Odin that was the case.

:: The Five Most Underrated Hold Steady Songs
1. “Knuckles”
I didn’t overrate anything on 2003 debut Almost Killed Me because it would seem all wrong. The album is an opening statement that shouldn’t be missed by newer fans who dig the bar-band, beery middle-aged rock thing; it connects Finn’s past work in Lifter Puller to the Hold Steady and is Kubler’s coming-out party as a writer of ridiculously potent, big-balled riffs (see: “The Swish”). “Knuckles” isn’t quite as well-loved as “The Swish” or “Most People Are DJs,” and it’s got a funny synth squiggle indicative of a pre-Franz Nicolay era. Lyrically, it’s a pretty involved tale involving crystal-meth raids, Finn’s name-game motif (“I’ve been trying to get people to call me Johnny Rotten/But people keep calling me Freddy Fresh”) and a subplot about a spider tattoo that, upon the 35th listen, you realize it relates to a seemingly unconnected comment about citrus-flavored beverage Five Alive. (I know this makes no sense if you haven’t heard the song.) At the 46-second mark, the guitars come crashing in a half-measure too early, a trick that’s repeated on “Multitude Of Casualties” (a.k.a. the best Hold Steady song in the catalog).

2. “Stevie Nix”
“You came into the ER drinking gin from a jam jar!” is one of many great lines in this song, and Finn’s vocal intensity easily matches the brute force of the guitar riff. The last two records have found Finn using his voice in a more melodic way (I wouldn’t quite call it “singing”), and that sometimes makes him sound drowsy against Kubler’s guitar bluster; take a listen to “Stuck Between Stations” from Boys And Girls, for instance. “Stevie Nix” lives a complete life: It references T.Rex’s “Ride A White Swan,” nods to anarcho-punk zine Profane Existence, then recounts the once-popular rumor about Rod Stewart getting his stomach pumped after blowing all the guys in his band. That’s all there is to life, right? Those three things?

3. “Girls Like Status”
A perfectly good song left off the regular version of Boys And Girls; it appears as a bonus track on the iTunes edition. My best guess is that somebody didn’t like the harmonica or thought it was too similar in theme to “You Can Make Him Like You.” There’s a pretty sweet shout-out to the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, too: “It was song number three on John’s last CD/’Gonna make it through this year if it kills me.’”

4. “Killer Parties”
Next time you want to slow things down with the Hold Steady and get reflective, skip “Citrus” or “Certain Songs” and proceed directly to “Killer Parties.” It’s the proudly sober morning-after remembrance of all the used-up drugs and broken lamps and close calls and out-of-town brodowns while on tour. It’s bassist Galen Polivka’s finest moment, as Koob steps aside and lets him carry the melody. If you mention a song’s bass line, that automatically means it’s underrated.

5. “Stay Positive”
The rating index on this one depends on your perspective, but even if you felt let down by Stay Positive, you have to appreciate the album’s title track, a grand summation and snapshot of the band’s achievements thus far. Finn picks his own pocket multiple times, referencing previous Hold Steady songs and getting sentimental about his own adolescence (“Youth Of Today and early Seven Seconds taught me some of life’s most valuable lessons”) and someone else’s (“The kids at the shows/Will have kids of their own”). It’s mawkish, overly sentimental and totally inspiring with a stellar “whoa-ho-ho” chorus that could go on forever in hot-dog heaven. It’s also an oddly final statement, like a hall-of-fame ballplayer thanking the fans for their support over the years. That’s not a midseason kind of thing to do; here’s hoping the Hold Steady plays on.

—Matthew Fritch

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