Sunday, February 25, 2007

Well we go...

I certainly didn't mean to let this blog lay fallow for so long. The funny thing is that I started it thinking that blog writing would be good exercise, that the kind of automatic, spontaneous, off the cuff writing that I just knew I'd do if I had a blog (because that's what they're all about, right?) would loosen up my muscles and make the scholarly easier. My first post was going to be about The Hold Steady, this great rawk band from Minneapolis who live in Brooklyn and who got me through grading and paper writing at the end of last semester. And i pretty much had it written, in my head anyway. And then these reissues of the first two Pretenders albums came out. Holy shit! What great songs, and live tracks too. And found myself very excited about James Honeyman Scott's guitar playing on those records, and I started thinking about the way he, and the Pretenders first bassist, Pete Farndon died, and it struck me that their lives and deaths, especially their deaths, could have taken place in Hold Steady songs. And if they did, Craig Finn would have invested them with just enough drama and nuance that you couldn't really call bullshit on them, you couldn't quite say "man that's just too much" although you'd want to. Sometimes Finn does pile it on a little thick, like when the fun song about hardcore kids at punk rock shows refuses to stay nice and ends "She had the gun in her mouth/she was shooting up in her dreams/when the chaperon said we'd been crowned the king and the queen." (Massive Nights) And, really, does the world need more hard boiled rock songs about fucked up people? Well, if they're these songs, yes. And maybe I should counter some of those lines with something else of Finn's, but what's the point if you can't hear the band? Because much what's working here is the band. Example: "She Put 900 dollars/on the fifth horse/in the sixth race/I think his name was Chips Ahoy"[BAM! Drums! guitar! Bass! organ!-settles down very quickly into tight groove, driving the next lines: "I got this girl, she don't have to work/she can tell which horse is gonna finish in first/two nights of painkillers make the pain even worse." And you know things aren't going to end well from there, and you're right, cuz the song ends with a nice hooky tail out with Finn singing "how'm I s'posed to know that you're high when I can't even touch you? How'mI s'posed to know that you're high when you won't even dance?" over and over against the same little "oh ho oahoho" backups that punctuated the intro. on the way, there's a great little bass and organ break, a cool guitar build up and a dead stop/explosion into the chorus, and it's all over in a little more than 3 minutes.

Sometimes, alot of the time, the band sounds like a kind of econo-jam version of Thin Lizzy. You get harmony guitars, you get solos, you get killer rock riffs, big thumpy drums and an aggressive, melodic bassist, big choruses, etc, but all packed into short, mostly flab-free songs. At other times, they sound oddly like Bruce and the E Steet band around the first couple of albums, especially the way Finn tries to pack a whole bunch of words into his lines. I mean, when you hear a singer exclaim "these twin city kisses/sound like clicks and hisses/and we all come down and drwon in the Mississippi river" (Boys and Girls in America) and then the band drops out and the piano player steps in with this nice little two handed narrative riff... and then the bass/drums/guitar come back in at almost metal force and volume, and...well, this Thin Lizzy/Bruce thing must be right, because after I thought of it myself, the review in Mojo sai the same thing, with many fewer words!

But the Mojo review also did the same dumb thing that every rock critic who writes about The Hold Steady does...they called them a "bar band." This is because, well, Adam says it's a lack of imagination, an automatic category slotting. and yeah, they do use some bar band moves, sonically. They sound like they step up on their stage monitors sometimes, you know, they aren't afraid of that. Like the way that James Honeyman Scott, in the last waves of the first British punk revolution, wasn't afraid to pour the whole exiled British heavy blues guitar tradition right into the Pretender's songs. Listening to those reissues, especially the live tracks, you hear that rare thing, a rock that's not too hazy to find the punk, and a punk that's not too (willfully) stupid to find the rock. the Hold Steady does this too, but that doesn't make them a bar band.

What does make them a bar band, in a very different way than most critics have meant the tag, is that they, using both words and music, describe situations that arise in or on the peripheries of the lives of people who live in bars (a la Cat Power) more or less, and they describe/enact those situations with drama that those folks would recognize as appropriate, both rhetorically and formally. And this is why couplets like "And the band played 'Screaming for Vengeance' and we agreed/this world is merely manacled/started out ice cream social nice/ended up all white and ecumenical" (Hot Soft Light) mean so much more when you can hear the band behind them, kicking into some hard rock that could make imagine that the next song might indeed be Screaming for Vengeance.

But this is the problem too, and this is the line that Finn's songs walk: the line between describing that life in the romantic and fucked up way it's felt, and romanticizing that fucked up life, the kind of life that left Honeyman Scott and Farndon dead of overdoses before they were 30. I mean, that's not rock and roll cool, that's incredibly stupid! And, maybe the difference between Craig Finn and the folks in his songs is that he knows

so, that's something like what i was going to write. I had this blaze of inspiration and it all fit together, probably better than it did there. I didn't even mention that the Hold Steady album all those songs are from is Boys and Girls in America. And I would have had a much better ending than this, if i'd ever gone ahead and written it all down.

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