Separation Sunday

The Hold Steady

French Kiss, 2005

REVIEW BY: Sean McCarthy


If musicianship has gotten more diverse and innovative since the rise of the Internet, it could be argued that the craft of songwriting remained somewhat stagnant. It could be because that while the Internet can connect you with people all over the world, it also insulates you and shuts you off from your surroundings. If you subscribe to this view and you’re a songwriter, you’re more apt to write exclusively about what’s going on in your own head rather than about what’s going on around you. That may yield enough material for an album, but eventually, there’s only a certain number of ways to say “I’m in pain.”

Fortunately, this is not a problem for Craig Finn. While many singer/songwriter’s lyrical muse revolves around God or a cheating ex, Finn’s centers more around locations. Specifically, stomach-pumping emergency room trips, keggers, and bars. From these places, Finn tells of stories of lies, lust, and resurrection. Big topics, sure, but his band, The Hold Steady, back it up with E Street Band luster. my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

2005’s Separation Sunday, their second album, stands as The Hold Steady’s finest work (so far). Tad Kubler’s bluesy guitar riffs and Bobby Drake’s drumming give an extra “oomph” to Finn’s lyrics. Finn may not have the most refined voice in rock, but his gravelly voice is a commanding force, especially when it takes you on a journey, like on the dizzying tale of Catholic-style apocalypse and rehab. In one song, Finn tosses out such gems like “silly rabbits, tripping is for teenagers,” “I guess I heard about original sin / I heard the dude blamed the chick / I heard the chick blamed the snake / I heard they were naked when they got busted” and “Later on we did some sexy things / took a couple photographs and carved them into wood reliefs” like he was rhyming “fire” with “desire.”

If Separation Sunday were to be judged solely on lyrics, the album would be an easy A. Even so, the band, given the unenviable task of trying to match Finn’s lyrical genius, has no problems living up to this task. “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” has a chugging guitar riff that sets the mood of the song so aptly, you can smell the Schlitz reeking from the “hoodrat” subjects.

In The Hold Steady’s world, the characters are as vivid as a Bukowski or Poe novel. The two central characters on Separation Sunday, Charlemagne and Holly, stumble and bash through life. Holly’s story ends the album with “How a Resurrection Really Feels.” Even if you haven’t stepped in church for decades, the music of the closing track is powerful enough to seriously believe that this would be the ideal soundtrack to a resurrection.

Bruce Springsteen may still be the king of turning three-minute songs into guitar-powered hymnals about life and death struggles, but The Hold Steady takes these themes and uses them to flesh out the boozed out and lovesick characters in their songs. For those who like their party music to have a little bit of brains without sacrificing an ounce of “meat and potatoes” rock, The Hold Steady is the best thing since The Replacements. All of their albums are perfect for party soundtracks, but Separation Sunday represents the party at its drunken, out-of-control peak.

Rating: A

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© 2008 Sean McCarthy and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of French Kiss, and is used for informational purposes only.