The Hold Steady

Almost Killed Me

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After Lifter Puller, the long-running indie rock band he fronted, broke up, Craig Finn took his vocal declarations and lyrical twists and started the Hold Steady. He was joined by old bandmate Tad Kubler on lead guitar plus a crew of hard rocking, bar hopping dudes intent on taking the rambling indie rock of Lifter Puller and replacing it with scuffed-up AOR and swaggering hard rock. Their 2004 debut album, Almost Killed Me, sounds like the E Street Band after they slipped into the gutter, Thin Lizzy if they got fat and American, and a hundred other bands from Southside Johnny to the early-'70s Kinks that liked to party, but did it with the occasional tear-filled eyes and desperate hearts. Like the best of these classic rock staples, the Hold Steady can flat out rock. Kubler can rip off a fret-searing solo with bullfighter style, which he does quite frequently, and the rhythm section has enough muscle power to stop a speeding locomotive. On top of this vintage rock chassis, the band drop Finn's vocals and vision. Without him, the music is straightforward enough to appeal to the AOR masses and backstreet fanatics; with him they are far too weird and wild. His pop culture name-drops, knowing references to obscure musicians like Andre Cymone, real-sounding tales of the streets, and flights of knuckle-busting anger are far out in left field, and his bracing, eye-bulging delivery of said lyrics pushes it even further over the top. It's a high-wire balancing act of sorts, and it would be easy for the band to topple over into boring mainstream rock cliches or veer into embarrassing drunken poetry territory but it never happens, not even once. The group plays with intense energy at all times, propping Finn up and giving his words the dramatic backdrop they deserve. Finn holds up his end of the bargain by being hilarious and oddly touching as he rambles, coughs, and shouts his way through what sounds like a lifetime of journal entries, inside jokes, and record store soliloquies. Tracks like "The Swish" and "Knuckles" are endlessly quotable, the story songs don't wear out after repeated listens, and at times, the words and music combine in such a thrilling manner that the Hold Steady feel like the best, most alive band in the world. It's a brilliant debut, and the sense that Finn and friends viewed Almost Killed Me as a renewed lease on musical life is tangible throughout. The last-chance desperation and burning desire bleed out through the grooves and it's impossible not to get swept up in the flood right along with them.

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