Your Little Hoodrat Friend - The Hold Steady (mp3)
For almost eight minutes into my introduction to The Hold Steady, way back in 2005, I was pretty sure I'd made a mistake.
I'd read a bunch of critical raves about their sophomore album, Separation Sunday, and since I'd just received a bunch of iTunes gift cards for Christmas, I decided to jump out on the limb and buy the album. Sure, :30 into the opening song, "Hornets! Hornets!" made it clear why critics loved 'em, but that song didn't call out to me specifically. It just sounded like a clever band schooled in the ancient arts of classic rock with some talky Lou Reed type on speed at the helm.
But once "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" blew into my earphones, and pretty much for the rest of the album, I felt like I'd finally found a critical darling I could love.
They've since released an additional three albums, including their newest, Heaven Is Whenever.
My suspicion is that the fan base who fell in love with Craig Finn and his G-Street Band of merry men back in 2004 or 2005 started losing their passion with 2008's Stay Positive. That album made it pretty clear that THS had maxed out their indy cred and were looking to break into something bigger. Fans who pride themselves on finding diamonds in the rough don't really get much joy in watching a diamond get polished and cut into something fit for a wedding. For those fans, I imagine Stay Positive was their sign to head for the exits.
Stay Positive was indeed that first baby step attempt at bigger things. But it was just that: a baby step. And babies don't always have a pretty gait when they learn to walk.
Heaven Is Whenever is their second step at hitting a bigger audience, moving up the ladder, becoming one of the very bands they spend all their time writing about, either in direct or indirect references. They dropped their keyboardist, which at first seemed like a foolish move, but once you hear what it does to their sound, it makes a lot of sense. Not that Franz "third-generation Roy Bittan" Nicolay wasn't awesome, 'cuz he totally was. While I can't often tolerate an organ in my rock, I can always find a spot in my rock heart for a band member willing to pound the ivories of a true percussion instrument.
Creating a friendlier rock album doesn't guarantee it being better, but for me, so far I'm enjoying this as much as their other stuff.
If you're a THS fan, I ask you to stick with them and appreciate that it's not a crime to want to hit the big leagues. Nobody faults Nuke LaLouche for wanting to go to The Show. Maybe The Hold Steady is just a Crash Davis, destined to etch their place in the minor league hall of fame, but don't blame 'em for trying. That's what any band worth its salt should aim for at one point or another.
Should they fail, I'm sure they'll dredge up some more stories about Charlemagne and Holly for you. Hell, Craig Finn might even go back to doing a shit-ton of drugs and stop singing so much. But for now, let the boy try and stay relatively sober and attempt to taste the finer things. If he keeps hanging around at keggers, he's gonna turn into one of those spooky older dudes that everyone calls "Chester the Boozer Loser Molester" when he walks away from the tap.
If you absolutely refuse to pay for an entire album, here's your best songs: "Soft In the Center," "The Smidge," and "Hurricane J." The last one is the heart of the album and the closest THS has ever gotten to arena rock. (No one should be surprised that "arena rock," coming from me, is a compliment.)