The Hold Steady should be your favorite band. This hasn't got anything to do with their sold-out show at the North Star. It doesn't have anything to do with Pitchfork plaudits or Village Voice covers or the blog-fueled backlash that goes with those things. It's just because The Hold Steady will give you more; they'll satisfy your hunger like a candy bar and keep you coming back like nicotine. They'll hand out instant gratification and will work to keep that gratification fresh.
Maybe, though, the best place to start explaining The Hold Steady is with a song that isn't even theirs, a live recording of the band covering Led Zeppelin's "Hey Hey What Can I Say." The first four bars of the song sound exactly like a solid, reasonably accomplished cover band grinding out midtempo, crowd-pleasing Zep.
: sonya kolowrat
But Craig Finn, up in front of all of this, couldn't care less about Robert Plant or his band's note-perfect backroom blooze; instead, he slurs through the first verse like a jealous accountant on a bender, all raw nerves and insecurity and poor diction. Where Plant was, like, a little disappointed that his woman won't be true, Finn's so torn up by her infidelity that he can't manage to find the beat through all of his flinching.
Then again, the Zeppelin song's a great choice for a Hold Steady cover — it hits all of the touchstones of the band's writing well enough that it could be one of theirs. There's the narrator's empty longing, the beautiful and damaged woman, dissolution and guitars and even the way sex and religion come together, with the menfolk standing in line outside the church: "I said they come to pray to the lord, but my little girl she looks so fine."
The Hold Steady share a lot with Zeppelin. The band carries the DNA of '70s classic rock, more comfortable with boogie and virtuosity than today's second-new-wave bands and happier with cheese than blues-rock revivalists like The White Stripes. And, like Zeppelin and their monster-rock ilk, The Hold Steady pin their themes to the biggest, most resonant ideas in rock: sex and drugs, boys and girls, god and the devil.
Unlike Page and Plant, though, The Hold Steady get called "literary" with some frequency. Partially, this has to do with those same big themes; sex and death and salvation, dealt with seriously, beg for the label. They also drop a lot more names than the average band: Rocco Siffredi and Rick Danko, John Berryman and Izzy Stradlin. The title of the new record, Boys and Girls in America comes from Kerouac, and Finn harangues Kerouac's readers: "Your favorite books, they wouldn't seem so well written/ if you were just a little bit more well-read."
Finn's lyrics — dense with allusion and cross-reference — tell stories, like the meet-cute scene of "Chillout Tent," or they sketch out scenes and characters that keep cropping up. Hallelujah and Charlemagne and Gideon and the singer make up the core of the cast of characters. They're the actors through much of Separation Sunday, but even passing mentions throughout their debut, Almost Killed Me, and Boys and Girls make it clear that Finn still hasn't finished with this background story.
The net effect of all of these glimpses and puzzle pieces isn't the same as Springsteen's slices of Jersey Shore summer and everyman longing, nor does it come from the headlong rush through low life that Beat novels deliver. The effect bears much more similarity to the bait-and-switch plotting of movies like Memento or modern TV dramas like Lost and The Wire — a central mystery slowly revealed through fragments and flashes. With a little close reading and some obsessive listening, traces of the story come out — Holly's nervous cough here, and a skinhead reference or a hardcore quote there. And each song pulls significance from the role it plays in developing the central story. There's a master narrative at work in these songs, and they become more than the sum of their parts because of their participation in that narrative.
Finn uses his language like a mannerist. He's easy to criticize as repetitious and self-referential, spending much of Almost Killed Me telling you what people looked like and how they liked to get off or asking that you call someone something or other; he goes off on repetitions and variations of words and phrases. But Finn's songs have the same feeling that Tom Waits' writing does — that he's whittled down his dictionary to the important words, those words most fraught with meaning, and he doesn't need the variety.
That restriction, that lack of variety, makes for very specific repeated images and plotlines. Finn catalogs Minneapolis intersections the way Waits drops the names of cities and trains, and this specificity lends itself to fanboy trainspotting. His constant reliance on Twin Cities geography has spawned an annotated Hold Steady map of the cities — here's City Center, a run-down half-empty mall, and there's where the Saint Paul Saints play minor-league baseball. Last year NPR even posted footnoted and hyperlinked versions of a couple of Finn's denser songs, and this paper printed its own drinking game ("...if you're ordered to pray for something you'd have to Google to understand...").
Finn's band, on the other hand, breaks through these verbal restrictions: They're comfortable with all the varied shades of classic rock, from ZZ Top boogie to Meatloaf piano flourishes to the Big Country guitar-as-bagpipe solo Tad Kubler pulls off in "Certain Songs." The tension between Finn's closed circuit of lyrics and the closed world his stories operate in and the wide-open bar-band Catholicism of the music gives the best aural clue to what The Hold Steady does — they're working with the tension between the general and the specific, between individual seductions and the universal promise of salvation.
It's that double promise — monster riffs delivered with geek enthusiasm, bons mots on top of a wide-ranging story — that should make this band your favorite, and should keep you hitting the replay key. After all, it's not like anyone else has both teenage kicks and eternal bliss on offer, now is it?
Tue., Nov. 21, 7 p.m., sold out, with The Constantines and Mountain High, North Star Bar, 2639 Poplar St., 215-787-0488, www.northstarbar.com.