Pick Your Pop Culture

So, I've like written about music for 25 years, and like I've got a lot to say and not enough people to pay me for it, and like I like to write about TV, and books, and movies, and stuff like that.

Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Holding Steady With the Hold Steady

On the advice of my fellow rock critic Roy Kasten, a bunch of us went out last night to catch a band called the Hold Steady. Interestingly enough, the reaction of our little crowd ranged from manic enthusiasm to supreme disinterest, which just goes to show the wisdom of Tom Ray’s immortal line about musical taste, “That’s why they make menus.”

Me, I found them to be very good. Basically, this is a four piece rock band – guitar, keyboards, bass, and drums – with a front person who makes all the difference. The musicians are terrific, especially the rhythm section, but they would probably be a fairly ordinary band without the vocalist, who declaims rhythmically in a wildly exhortatory manner. What few lyrics I could make out were intelligent, witty, dark.

The comparison that struck me was that these guys are doing something akin to what Patti Smith did back in the 70s. Here’s a poet delivering his lyrics in a musical style, and taking advantage of his understanding and love for rock’n’roll. His style isn’t the same as what Smith uses, nor is his band the same as hers. But, the spirit, albeit infused with a greater ironic distance, was similar.

A word about irony, because this was something of a dispute among my party. Cat thought the Hold Steady were entirely too ironic, and Roy insisted they weren’t ironic at all. Me, I thought they used irony to cut the hearts-on-their-sleeve rock approach that would have made these guys forgettable without the vocalist. Because they could and did pump up the emotional rhetoric with forceful guitar riffs, percolating bass lines, swooshy organ chords, and pummeling drums, I think the Hold Steady know the tropes of rock’n’roll quite well. But, because the vocalist was both drawn to the release of the music and insistent on delivering his words where they needed to fall, and because, frankly, he wore glasses and a perfectly ordinary polo shirt which can’t be taken as anything but an ironic comment on rock star couture, there was always a tension between ironic distance and direct communication. That was the key to this band, for me, and I want to hear more of their recorded music to see if it holds up.Ho

8 Comments:

Blogger Roy Kasten said...

This is very nicely said, Steve. I do think that once you get past appearances, the ironic distance melts away. Once you hear the records, which I will remedy this evening by burning the two albums, you'll get what I mean. There's definitely a kind of irony in Finn's lyrics and delivery, but it's much closer to text book "dramatic irony," as opposed to distancing irony, at least for me. i never feel a distancing effect at all. Another way of thinking about the irony is to consider Elvis and the Attractions use of, say, sunny Memphis and Motown sounds to emphasize and contrast his withering social commentary. Finn and the band are doing pretty much the same thing, only with classic rock. And the classic rock sound is the best sound for Finn's stories of the teenage wasteland. He and the band are totally absorbed in and by that sound, even if they remain punks at heart. Your point about a tension is right, though I never felt the distance....Roy

1:17 PM  
Blogger Steve Pick said...

Excellent points, Roy. It's interesting to consider the effects of one's relationship to musical familiarity and the perception of irony. Because you know the CDs so well - and thanks for the copies, I'll listen to them soon - you concentrate more on the lyrics and less on the ironic distance of the performance which captivated me. In the same way, because I know Costello's music so intimately, I never even think about the ironic effect of his musical choices on the lyrical themes. I just figure that's what those songs are supposed to sound like.

At any rate, there's a lot going on with the Hold Steady, a band worthy of much further consideration.

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