American splendor

"What I do is talk for four minutes, then take a break." That's Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn using his puckish sense of humor to describe what he does onstage. His songs do suggest a rambling vamp he's made up on the spot. And as Finn indulges his combination of stage patter and storytelling, he's backed by what sometimes sounds like a bar band entertaining itself, the extended rave-ups and hook-driven jams grooving relentlessly like Cheap Trick or Thin Lizzy blowing off steam. It's not always apparent that Finn's even singing with the band. But what's always clear is that like any great conversationalist, he's damn engaging.

"That's a real thing I'm hung up on — the conversational quality of the songs," he says. "In fact, when we record, I won't read the lyrics [from a sheet]. I'll just look at them, and then go back to the mic. Because I want to basically remember what to sing. But I want to deliver it in a way that I would say it."

He continues: "There's just something gained by delivering lyrics the way you would say them. I hate it when I hear a line from a vocalist that's not how anyone would actually speak. The same thing with the vocals. My vocal style is basically me just talking, but louder. I think that if you're going for honesty, you want to go for the most conversational approach you can."

All of which seems perfect for a band critics have described as the latest in a glorious chain of underdog "losers-as-heroes" championing the redemptive power of rock, as well as a band that's frequently been compared to both the Replacements and Bruce Springsteen. And Finn's garrulous narratives do approach Greetings From Asbury Park heights at times, although his themes are always quite straightforward. From the Catholicism that underlies the redemption-seeking characters on 2005's Separation Sunday, to the anxious, hook-up hungry pulse that permeates last year's third album, Boys and Girls in America, there's a sense of carefree youthful indulgence skidding toward a brick wall of reality in all his songs. In this way, Finn echoes the same hope-against-declining-odds themes that rule those early Springsteen discs. You can really hear it on "Southtown Girls," the track that closes Boys and Girls, which revolves around the lyric: "Southtown girls may not blow you away/but you know that they'll stay."

Southtown is "a lame mall" in the suburbs of the band's native Minneapolis, he explains. "It's amazing how many e-mails we got saying, 'I lost my virginity in that mall parking lot.' But everyone gets to that age where you're looking for a partner; someone to be on your team. It's not like you're trying to find the hottest chick in the world, but maybe, for once, someone who's just going to stay."

This current leg of the tour finds these prototypical Americans on the road with British post-punk sensations Art Brut. With the touring cycle for Boys and Girls coming to an end, the band was looking to do something different apart from just touring with another opening band. When their agent heard that Art Brut were Hold Steady fans, things came together quickly.

"The funny thing about Art Brut is a lot of people think they're being ironic," says Finn. "But what I love about them is that the songs all just feel very honest to me."

Finn does suggest, however, that one can go too far in seeking lyrical honesty, especially when presupposing some kind of "confessional" element. He kvetches about the number of questions he receives about drug use due to some of his characters' questionable lifestyle choices.

"Everybody thinks that a songwriter is baring his soul," he counters. "But no one says to Quentin Tarantino, 'You must do tons of karate and just shoot people all the time.' These songs are based on my life, but it's certainly not my life."

Monday, Oct. 29, at the Crofoot Ballroom, 1 S. Saginaw St., Pontiac; 248-858-9333.

Chris Parker is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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