The Hold Steady

Separation Sunday

(Frenchkiss; 2005)

By Matt Stephens | 18 September 2007

Toronto, like all major cities in the western hemisphere, has a “classic rock” radio station, one which I’m subjected to for four hours a week when I work at an uptown guitar shop. You can probably guess its playlist before I tell you: AC/DC, Zeppelin, Floyd, Boston, the Guess Who, Fleetwood Mac, Clapton in his various incarnations, Aerosmith; pretty much every popular guitar band active in the years after the British Invasion and before New Wave. Aside from the odd Stones or Beatles tune, it’s music I’m relatively unfamiliar with. I wouldn’t speak a bad word about Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd or even AC/DC, and I even own a handful of their albums, but like most indie rock fans, I think, I can’t claim to really like their music.

Craig Finn probably knows this. His band, the Hold Steady, takes this huge but oft-ignored genre and attempts to redefine it in an indie rock context. It’s an interesting idea, particularly in this cliquey, retro-obsessed climate. Separation Sunday, the band’s sophomore album, bursts with big, distorted riffs, exuberant drum fills and melodic solos, all borrowed or stolen from the aforementioned dinosaurs.

This is all well and good -- “Hornets! Hornets!” “Banging Camp,” and “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night” all feature infectious and instantly memorable guitar hooks, showcasing the band’s impressive technical skill as well as their keen ear for tight pop songwriting. Elsewhere, on album highlights “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” and “Stevie Nix” (classic rock obsession, indeed), they demonstrate an ability to use dynamic shifts to push their songs to impressive climaxes.

What kills it, unfortunately, are Finn’s unmelodic and redundant, pseudo-spoken word babblings. He sounds a lot like Robert Pollard, only after about a dozen lungfulls of ether and a nasty inner-ear infection. He uses virtually the same register and inflection for every section of every song, groaning his way over his own melodies and even occasionally making it difficult to discern when a verse has changed to a chorus. His voice muddies the impact of his songs considerably, and no matter how hard they try, the band can’t push the songs past Finn’s obnoxious ramblings.

About halfway through “Stevie Nix” the band drops out, and the song segues into a gorgeous piano-led instrumental section. The effect is lovely, and is probably my single favourite moment on Separation Sunday, but I still find myself cringing every time I hear it, knowing that Finn is seconds away from battering it beyond recognition with another verse of arrhythmic sing-speak.

And this, I suppose, encapsulates the only real problem I have with The Hold Steady: take Finn’s vocals out of the equation and you have a fun and even innovative garage band steeped in the brand of classic rock to which indie has never properly paid its due. With Finn, they’re monotonous, even annoying. If Finn can manage to vary his delivery as much as his songwriting next time around, the Hold Steady could spark a cock-rock renaissance; but, for now, you’d do better to dust off your old man’s copy of Toys in the Attic, sit back, and re-evaluate what Craig Finn knows we’ve all been ignoring for far too long.