I harbor an unproven theory that high-quality, industry-shaking rock music rotates on a 14-year cycle. Based on the historical reference points of 1977 (when the Sex Pistols unleashed Never Mind the Bollocks… ) and 1991 (when Nirvana induced a chart-quake with Nevermind), this is the year I'll find out if my hypothesis is valid. The release of the Hold Steady's Separation Sunday last month is a damn good sign that I'm not totally crazy.
Formed in 2003 from the remains of Minneapolis's Lifter Puller, the Hold Steady are a classic rock band with a really, REALLY big brain--specifically the one inside the head of aggressively charismatic frontman Craig Finn. 2004's debut, The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, instantly signaled the commencement of an epic and engrossing journey. While drummer Judd Counsell, guitarist Tad Kubler, and bassist Galen Polivka erect precise, highly melodic rock architecture, Finn agilely scales the walls, delivering a compact American history lesson on the opening track (literally outlining the impact of cultural events from the '20s to the millennium), delivered in a droll, hiphop-influenced bark that's equal parts Jello Biafra and Mark E. Smith. He proceeds with vivid yarns about rock-world archetypes, from aging scenesters still going to shows to amateur turntablists ("everyone's a critic and most people are DJs"). Just when he's on the cusp of being cloyingly clever, Finn nails a line that's either achingly funny ("I did a couple favors for some guys who looked like Tuscan Raiders") or heartbreakingly insightful ("We didn't see the Holy Ghost/but the Father and Son seemed like regular folks").
The impact of that first record was minimal, other than among indie freaks and geeks, but the sophomore success of Separation Sunday is making big waves, earning them glowing praise in places like the New Yorker. Speaking with the affable and articulate Finn via phone, it's evident he's glad their brand of brain and brawn is finally taking off. "When we moved to Brooklyn in 2000, there was this whole dance-punk thing with [bands like] the Rapture--and that was really unappealing and disgusting to watch," he recalls. "So we were like, 'Why don't we try to make a smart rock band. Classic rock with a small c.'"
Separation Sunday maintains that classic rock foundation but the tone is much darker, thanks to the overarching tale of drug-addled Catholic characters who swing feverishly between the two extremes of addiction and salvation. "I don't go to church anymore, but it is certainly an important part of my upbringing and even my day-to-day life in some respects," says Finn, who was raised in a strict Catholic household. "I've always been a creature of moderation, so I'm interested in that mind set--and I think extremism in our culture is a huge problem right now."
In addition to the intellectual draw of Finn's lyricism, the dramatic nature of the production makes for a cohesive piece that demands to be listened to from start to finish. "This record could really be seen sort of like a film," explains producer Dave Gardner via e-mail, "Craig wrote the screenplay; Tad, Bobby, Galen, Franz, and Judd revised it, and [co-producer] Dean [Baltulonis] and I had to get the sets ready, find the right locations, and direct it. They made this pretty fantastic over the top 'movie' of a record, and we just tried to make sure it was in the 70mm Technicolor that was called for."