MELISSA BLOCK, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
It's one of the best-reviewed CDs of the year. "Separation Sunday" from the group The Hold Steady is a concept album. It's about a teen-age girl in suburban Minneapolis torn between the allure of drugs and sex and the pull of her Catholic upbringing. That story is set to pounding classic rock riffs worthy of the band's Midwestern roots. NPR's Jacob Ganz reports.
Unidentified Man: ...(Unintelligible).
JACOB GANZ reporting:
Backstage at "Last Call with Carson Daly," the members of The Hold Steady lounge on couches seemingly unfazed by their first shot at network television.
(Soundbite of "Last Call with Carson Daly")
Mr. CARSON DALY (Host): Our next guests are one of the most talked about bands here in New York in years. We're happy to have them tonight. Here to perform "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" from their new album "Separation Sunday," this is The Hold Steady, everybody.
(Soundbite of cheering and applause; "Your Little Hoodrat Friend")
THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) Your little hoodrat friend makes me sick, but after I get sick, I just get sad, because it burns being broke and it hurts to be heartbroken, always being both must be a drag. She's been calling me again...
GANZ: On stage, the musicians strike an unlikely pose for would-be rock stars. Guitarist Tad Kubler's shaggy blond hair, tie and a shirt--tucked in at his girlfriend's request--make him look something like a surfer with a court date. And then there's singer Craig Finn.
Ms. JESSICA HOPPER (Editor, Hit It or Quit It): He's got kind of like a casual Friday kind of look to him.
GANZ: Jessica Hopper is the editor of the magazine Hit It or Quit It and writes for the Minneapolis City Pages.
Ms. HOPPER: When he gets on stage, it looks like he literally just got off work, like, 20 minutes ago, came from downtown on the bus and just took off his tie and got on stage.
(Soundbite of "Your Little Hoodrat Friend")
THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) The tiny little text etched into her neck said, `Jesus lived and died for all your sins.' And she's got blue-black ink and it's been scratched into her lower back, and it says, `Damn right, he'll rise again.' Damn right, you'll rise again.
GANZ: Craig Finn has described The Hold Steady in song as a bar band. To hear him talk, The Hold Steady's aiming for a bar that's, well, pretty hot.
Mr. CRAIG FINN (The Hold Steady): You know, you think about "Born to Run" by Bruce Springsteen, you know, that riff--(makes riff sound)--you know, he knows he's got to go somewhere with that. He's like, `We need five minutes of just teen-age drama here.'
GANZ: The band wraps a huge sticky web of classic rock riffs around Finn's epic tales of suburban kids at loose ends in the upper Midwest. You can hear traces of The Boss, Thin Lizzy, Billy Joel; not exactly the influences you'd expect from a guy who says The Replacements are still his favorite band.
Mr. FINN: This is '88, '89. There's no alternative rock radio that I could get in on my car radio, so I listened to KQRS, which was classic rock radio in Minneapolis. And, you know, all the hours you spent in your car--'cause at that age, you're just trying to do anything but be home, you know, so you really barely get a subconscious appreciation of classic rock or a knowledge of it. And what you find as an adult is you hear all these classic rock songs and somehow you figured out you know all of the words to it, you know exactly where the change is going, and it just becomes kind of a ground zero for music.
GANZ: Music and lyrics--in Finn's case, lots of lyrics. His encyclopaedic knowledge of rock and pop culture pours out of his mouth in a steady stream of references: Journey, Prince's New Power Generation, Nina Simone, Scandal--and that's all in one verse from the band's first album.
(Soundbite of "The Swish")
THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) She said, `My name's Steve Perry, but people call me Circuit City. I'm so well connected, my UPC is dialed into the system.' She said, `My name's Neil Schon, but people call me Nina Simone. Some people call me Andre Cymone, 'cause I survived the '80s one time already.'
GANZ: On the new record, classic rock remains the musical backdrop, but Finn's song overlap and wind around each other in an album-length narrative about the fall from grace and eventual redemption of a prodigal daughter named Holly, short for Hallelujah.
(Soundbite of "Cattle and the Creeping Things")
THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) She said, `I was seeing double for three straight days after I got born again. It felt strange, but it was nice and peaceful, and it really pleased me to be around so many people. Of course, half of them were just visions, half of them were friends from going through the programs with me.'
GANZ: Over the course of "Separation Sunday," Holly careens between parties and catechism classes, colliding with soccer players, skaters, deacons and drug dealers. Behind these 42 minutes of teen-age drama, guitarist Tad Kubler's classic riffs deliver a kind of catharsis.
Mr. TAD KUBLER (The Hold Steady): Music for a lot of people is a real--there's a lot of guidance, there's a lot of hope. And I think that a lot of people use music that way--I mean, as an emotional tool, as well, which I think obviously the church is that for a lot of people, too.
GANZ: That's right, `the Church,' with a big C. Craig Finn grew up in a devout Catholic family, and Catholicism takes a prominent role in shaping the new album. Finn says that drugs and rock 'n' roll, while essential ingredients in teen-age rebellion, are simply part of a recipe that fuels the drama of this record.
Mr. FINN: The Catholicism that's represented on the record, it has more to do with the traditions and where it fits in culturally with these people being raised Catholic and having this conservative side to them as they go out and party and sin and, you know, explore. So it isn't a real heavy religious thing; it's just more, like, the church as sort of a foundation and where it fits in their lives.
(Soundbite of song)
THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) And Holly wore a cross to Wal-Mart. She said, `If they think if you're a Christian, then they want to pray in the dark.' She said, `If they think you're a Catholic, then they'll want to be your boss.' And Holly wore a cross to Wal-Mart.
GANZ: Church, drugs and rock 'n' roll exist on equal footing. Finn and company clearly have a great deal of affection for the ostentatious, overblown scope of classic rock, much as Finn does for his own Catholic upbringing. But neither one is sacred. Holly isn't saved solely because she's a Catholic and isn't condemned just because she's a screw-up who loves rock 'n' roll. Critic Jessica Hopper says somehow the band holds these disparate elements together.
Ms. HOPPER: The magic of The Hold Steady is the dichotomy between almost, you know--and I mean this in the best possible way--the dumbness of the big classic rock with the elaborate, ornate and almost literary aspect of the lyrics, that it's so literate with something that's so last-call bar rock.
(Soundbite of "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night")
THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) Nelson Algren came to party at the party at the dead-end alley. Yeah, he told them what to celebrate. And I met William Butler Yeats at the Sunday night dance party, summer 1988. At first, I thought it might be William Blake.
GANZ: It's almost as though the band can't help but sound the way it does even though the musicians have long since left the Midwest for New York.
Mr. FINN: We're not trying to be a retro band. We're not trying to be a cover band. We're not trying to be a '70s band. We've worked all this in as just basic rock 'n' roll. I think of it as classic rock with a small C.
GANZ: The formula seems to be working. Earlier this year, The Hold Steady landed on the cover of The Village Voice, and the band just sold out two shows at New York's Bowery Ballroom. Ted Kubler and Craig Finn say they're often pleasantly surprised by the folks who show up for their concerts.
Mr. KUBLER: In talking to some of the people after the show, it's, like, there were some people there that were born in 1984, so they've never known Van Halen with David Lee Roth.
Mr. FINN: But you know, there's--a lot of guys are coming up to me that are, like, 35, 36 years old and saying, `I haven't bought a record in five years. I haven't been to a show in four years. My wife and I, we got a sitter for the kids tonight and we're not going to go into work tomorrow. We're going to have a good time.' And what we're basically doing is--Tad's 33?
Mr. KUBLER: Yeah.
Mr. FINN: I'm 33.
Mr. KUBLER: No, 32.
Mr. FINN: You're 32? We're making music that we like to hear.
GANZ: It'll give people something to think about, too, while they're pumping their fists and pounding a beer in the backs of the bars, which is exactly where The Hold Steady will be this fall. Jacob Ganz, NPR News.
(Soundbite of "Chicago Seemed Tired Tonight")
THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) Hey, William Butler Yeats. all the Irish seemed wired last night.
BLOCK: You can hear songs from The Hold Steady, complete with footnotes explaining the lyrics, at our Web site, npr.org.
(Soundbite of "Chicago Seemed Tired Tonight")
THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) They had cigarettes where they were supposed to be eyes.
(Soundbite of music)
BLOCK: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.