On their 2000 swan song Fiestas + Fiascos, Minneapolis' Lifter Puller developed into perhaps the most distinctive guitar-bass-drums indie-rock band on the planet. Musically, it was car-factory guitar clatter hopped up on funk and hip-hop, and it presented an illusion of spontaneity, as if the band were riffing, jazzlike, off lead "singer" Craig Finn's sometimes deal-breaking Lenny Bruce-like rants. The theme was the grimy underside of nightlife -- backroom drug deals, alcohol-fueled house parties, random sex --and Finn's protagonist navigated it all like Philip Marlowe through the hazy decadence of The Big Sleep. It was the masterpiece that nobody heard, and the band's cult seemed to peak about six months after they broke up.
Now based in Brooklyn, Finn (along with Lifter Puller bassist Tad Kubler, now on lead guitar) is back with a new band, the Hold Steady, which puts a more conventional twist on the Lifter Puller formula. Where Lifter Puller's sound was sui generis, the Hold Steady is a very self-conscious commentary on bar-band rock, a successful attempt to unite the classic-rock sounds of the mid-'70s with the indie-rock of the early '90s. (When I spoke to Finn at Austin's South By Southwest festival this year, he revealed that his favorite band is the Grifters.)
There are a lot of similarities between Fiestas + Fiascos and Almost Killed Me. Both are driven by Finn's torrent of words, which again take the form of stream-of-consciousness observations on seedy nightlife scenes, here mixed with random declarations ("The '80s almost killed me/Let's not recall them quite so fondly," he admonishes his colleagues on the NYC rock scene) and pop-culture name-chains (one set of lyrics leaps drunkenly from Neil Schon to Nina Simone to Andre Cymone). And Almost Killed Me features the recurring characters and lyrical motifs that marked Fiestas, though not nearly to the same extreme. The songs and setting here are more self-contained.
The biggest difference is the music and the way the music influences the lyrical content (or vice versa?). "Barfruit Blues" makes a bid to be the best song ever about playing in a bar band. Early on, Finn runs into a lifetime scenester who remembers him from the Lifter Puller days. The exchange goes like this: "She said, 'It's good to see you back in a bar band, baby'/I said, 'It's great to see you're still in the bars.'" By the end of the song, the band is on stage confronting its nightly moment of truth: "This was supposed to be a party/Half the crowd is calling out for 'Born To Run'/The other half is calling out for 'Born To Lose'/Baby, we were born to choose/We got the last-call bar-band really-really-really big decision blues/We were born to bruise."
The bar-band theme allows Finn & Co. to indulge the Springsteen fixation that popped up on Fiestas + Fiascos (most notably in "Candy's Room," so named because it borrowed the drum intro from the Boss song of the same title). You can hear this on the Clarence Clemons sax breaks of the empathetic "Hostile, Mass" and on the "Thunder Road" mood of the nostalgic "Certain Songs," the tale of a girl "neck deep in the steamy dreams of the guys along the harbor bars."
But this rock-and-roll romanticism comes through most on the anthemic "Most People Are DJs" (a slogan-of-the-decade candidate, surely). At the end of the song, emotion and momentum building, Finn looks out on the "kids" in the audience, and they multiply in his mind: "A thousand kids will fall in love in all these clubs tonight/A thousand other kids will end up gushing blood tonight/Two thousand kids won't get too much sleep tonight/Two thousand kids, they still feel pretty sweet tonight/Yeah, and I still feel pretty sweet." And as he reaches that affirmation, Kubler clips him off with a classic-rock guitar solo that lifts off at the 3:24 mark and goes on for two-and-a-half minutes.
The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me opens with a song called "Positive Jam," where Finn offers a Cliffs Notes history of the U.S. ("In the '90s we were wired and well-connected/Put it all down on technology and lost everything we invested") that culminates with a personal confession: "I got bored when I didn't have a band/So I started a band/We're gonna start it with a positive jam." Well, "Most People Are DJs" is the real positive jam --and all the evi