That Devil’s Music The Kids Are Digging So Much

May 12, 2005 at 6:37 am (Uncategorized)

The last couple of weeks have been great weeks for new music. Last week, Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis transplants The Hold Steady released their sophomore long-player, Separation Sunday. Yesterday, Spoon put out their newest, Gimme Fiction.

Both discs are as essential as oxygen, frankly. I’m not sure how much I’ll be able to communicate with you if you haven’t listened to either at length.

First, let’s talk about The Hold Steady. First I’d heard of them was one frigidly cold winter day last January. I was working in Connecticut, but had arranged a 3-day weekend and went to New York where I happened to hook up with some dear friends in that city. One of the items on tap: seeing The Hold Steady at some small underground (literally, in a basement) club. I remember asking my friend Marc what they sounded like. His response?

“Mark E. Springsteen.”

Okay, that’s very, very funny if you’re a fan of The Fall. Seeing the band, they actually fill that bill. There’s a definite and undeniable Springsteen influence in their music (there’s even a “tramps like us” lyric drop on the new disc). But Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn definitely has that Mark E. Smith thing going too–onstage, he twitches, shouts off-mic at unseen demons, sneers, leers, and generally just works up about a gajillions of gallons of sweat up there in service to his songs. He’s a true original, and his poetic lyrics are as brilliant as anything you’ve heard since…I dunno, Born to Run?

Separation Sunday seems to be something of a concept album about a suburban schoolgirl named Holly (short for Halleluiah) who falls in with the wrong crowd, some of whom (like dealer/pimp/hustler Charlemagne) were introduced on the Hold Steady’s debut, Almost Killed Me. The whole thing goes on in alternating lucid and imagistic detail of the horrors of street life until the devastatingly brilliant closer, “How A Resurrection Really Feels.” You like lyrics, do you? Check this out, yo.

“her parents named her halleluiah,
the kids all called her holly.
if she scared you then she’s sorry.
she’s been stranded at these parties.
these parties they start lovely
but they get druggy
and they get ugly
and they get bloody.
the priest just kinda laughed.
the deacon caught a draft.
she crashed into the easter mass
with her hair done up in broken glass.
she was limping left on broken heels
when she said father can i tell yr congregation how a resurrection really feels?”

The addition of a full-time keyboardist Franz Nicolay allows the band to spread out and really rock on songs like “Cattle And The Creeping Things” and the incredible “Banging Camp”….and also allows the piano to come outta nowhere to steal the show on quite a few tracks.

One more thing: whenever folks talk about The Hold Steady, invariably the talk turns to Craig Finn. How can it not? A fascinating songwriter, and perhaps one of the best rock frontmen to come along in a decade, he’s bound to steal the show. That’s what makes the sprawling closer to Sunday such a triumph, because by the second half of the song, the band is rocking like crazy on one of the best album-closing tracks in a long, long time.

Hard to top…

….but then there’s Spoon. Probably a little better known than The Hold Steady, Spoon have ably transformed themselves from dull Paveboy-soundalikes into something bold and original in the last five years. Starting with the Graham Parker & the Rumour-sounding Girls Can Tell back in 2001, though, they started making some of the most brilliant, spare, minimalist pop-rock on the planet.

The Spoon modus is that “less is more”, almost to a fault. 2002’s brilliant-but-flawed Kill The Moonlight had songs that were made up entirely of a piano riff repeating over handclaps or a single snare, for instance. Spoon songwriter/frontman Britt Daniels manages to turn the brilliant trick of building up to points where a huge guitar riff sounds like it should go, or a brilliant, arena-rock chorus should come crashing in…and then pulls back, leaving only empty space and a tremendous amount of tension, just waiting to unleash it later.

Fiction opens with the killer “Beast & Dragon, Adored”. With a descending melody riff powered by piano and bass, it eerily echoes “Silence Kit”, the opener on Pavement’s Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain…but “Adored” is a totally different song by the first verse, and one that immediately won me over with the self-referential lyrics about the music in the chorus. They follow right on the heels of that brilliant opener with “Two Sides Of Monsieur Valentine” and the first single, “I Turn My Camera On”. The former song is as full-bodied a tune as Daniel & Co have tried in a while, with a full string section keeping this sordid little character sketch on the mark. The latter is simply brilliant summer dance pop, taking Hendrix’ “Purple Haze” intro riff and making it percussive, and then adding an “Emotional Rescue” -esque vocal to it, with Daniel not straining at all through the falsettos.

After that, “Delicate Place” seems to offer some acoustic retreat, but again builds to a full-bodied cathartic finish. If the rest of the disc seems to pale in comparison to the brilliant opening tracks, it’s only because there isn’t the immediacy of them in the final half of the album. The more I listen, though, the more I find myself adopting songs like “Was It You”, “I Summon You”, and “Merchants Of Soul” as being perhaps the deepest songs present on this wonderful disc.

Both records are absolutely brilliant, and are standouts in what is already feeling like a tremendous year for music thus far.

Obligatory free stuff, sanctioned by both bands and labels:

The brilliant “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” from The Hold Steady. (Full song)

The brilliant “The Swish” from last year’s Hold Steady disc, Almost Killed Me.

You can also check out the video to Swish and see the band in all their glory here.

And how about a full version of “I Turn My Camera On” from Spoon, too? Ok, thanks Matador!

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