Saturday, May 1, 2010

Cinnamon Toast Crunch Guitar and Why The Hold Steady Matters

I found this cool Cinnamon Toast Crunch toy guitar out on the rainy boulevard this morning. I bet a couple of members of The Hold Steady had homemade guitars as toddlers.

The Hold Steady are releasing their new record, Heaven is Whenever, on Tuesday. Who cares? Well, Scruffy does, and so do thousands of music bloggers, record store geeks, and rock critics. At the last Hold Steady show, the academic fellow with me said, "Never seen so many aging hipsters in one place."
"What does an aging hipster look like?"
"Anyone past their twenties and still wearing Chuck Converse All-stars."
Hey, I still like my Chucks, and there were an inordinate amount of ageing hipsters in that crowd, no matter their choice of footwear.

But The Hold Steady doesn't deserve to be pigeon-holed as quick as my scholarly bud can elbow me in the ribs. Here's why HS really matters:

1. HS are a rock band, yet the band has managed to become popular without a closetful of gimmicks. In a world where for some people Nicklecrack, 3 Days Grace, and Theory of a Deadman pass for punch-a-fist-in-the-air rockingest without being metal, room to breathe is tough to find for a rock band that aspires to be a tad more than dumb rock. So we get bands that wear retro suits or duos that only wear red and refuse to pay for a bass player. All right, that kind of dress-up can be fun for artists and fan alike. But only guy in The HS that has worn anything other than walking-around clothes has been Franz Nicolay, the band's keyboard player.

Maybe Nicolay's waxed mustache and 30's gangster attire could in some way be HS's gimmick, but as entertaining as he was, Nicolay was not the frontman or the focus of the band. Maybe that's why he left. At any rate, he is no longer with the band.

Anyhow, The HS play rock music. Not precious, arty puzzles. There's no disco, no big obvious eighties rip-offs, no post-punk math-rock sound-collage damaged electronic meandering. That's darn refreshing. While fair comparisons have been made to older Springsteen, my fellow concert-goer yelled in my ear at the show, "Never knew there was so much Thin Lizzy in 'em!", referring to the nice fat riffing of guitarist Tad Kubler.

Rock Problems- The Hold Steady by ninasles

2. Singer/songwriter/guitarist/frontman Craig Finn can't sing. I mean, in the dvd that comes with the live album A Positive Rage, he admits it, saying that his vocals are basically his speaking voice amplified. It's really more animated and emotive than that, but Finn never tries to be Robert Plant, Chris Cornell or Steve Perry - hell, he isn't even soaring to Gord Downie levels. On the other hand, he ain't aping Lou Reed, Bob Dylan, or Leonard Cohen, either. Finn's just doing his own thing, and for his lyrics about risky relationships, Minneapolis spots, self-medicating, parties and dances and debauchery, the voice works fine. In fact, I've heard The Hold Steady cover Dylan, Springsteen, and Bryan Adams, and none of them hit the sweet spot like the HS's originals. It's true, he can't sing, but it's like a breath of fresh air to hear a guy use his vocal cords in a somewhat natural way, as opposed to all of those singers out there copying Ian Curtis, Robert Smith, or David Bowie, for example.

Hurricane J- The Hold Steady by ninasles

3. The band has a sense of humour. If you listen to the lyrics or see The Hold Steady live you can't miss it. These guys aren't trying to act cool, intense, or grim all of the time. Not like it's a comedy act, but there's enough artists out there taking themselves too seriously. Ending a song with a line like "I did a couple favours for these guys that looked like Tuscan raiders" is kinda nonsensical, but it works for me. The words "fun" and "funny" aren't bad words for The Hold Steady - take note, Thom Yorke. You too, Bono. Chris Martin calls his kids funny names, but I don't know if that counts. Hey, Billie Joe Armstrong!

4. Live, it's a Halleluleauh rave-up. It's a joyous experience, with Finn mouthing his own lyrics 2 or three times after he's just sung them, getting the crowd to clap double-time, grinning from ear to ear, without rock star posing; unless you think a balding guy with thick specs flailing his arms around, popping bugged-out eyes and smiling at everyone and everything is a rock star pose. Below is two live versions of the same song, the first has great sound, but in the second one you can hear the crowd singing along, which is something I think happens at a lot of shows. Since Finn doesn't really sing, it's easy to join along - it feels like a big inebriated party, whether it is one or not.

5. The lyrics. Not necessarily poetry, definitely not dumbed down on all counts, the lyrics are those of a guy from who loves music and thinks people of all flavours are interesting. Name-dropping Saint Joe Strummer, poet John Berryman, 7 Seconds, and Husker Du, titling a song Charlemagne in's all good.
"She said you're pretty good with words, but words won't save you
And they didn't, so he died" is a favourite.

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