The Best Unknown Band

The Hold Steady play for fans, not sales

The most remarkable thing about the Hold Steady is the fact that, despite being one of the best-reviewed rock bands in the US, with three albums in three consecutive years that have each topped numerous important year-end lists, most of the country still has no idea who the hell they are. The second most remarkable thing about the Hold Steady is that this will probably never change.

It might have something to do with the fact that the Brooklyn-based band — five thirtysomething, relatively unattractive guys, fronted by a singer who can’t really sing (imagine Elvis Costello after gargling with asbestos) — naturally resists popular forms of musical dissemination like MTV and soundtracks. Their raucous guitar- and piano-driven songs, often about chaotic Midwestern youth, are the sort of anthems best suited to dive bars. You could even say they’re a poor man’s Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, whom they’re often compared to.

When asked if the disconnect between critical and commercial success ever weighs heavy, keyboardist Franz Nicolay responded, “I guess you could if you let it. I mean, we are one of the best-reviewed bands out there. That’s a pretty good start.”

The Hold Steady were born in 2003 and, by 2004, had their first critical hit with the party-friendly Almost Kill Me. The following May, they released Separation Sunday, a loose concept album about the misadventures of a drug-addicted Twin Cities youth named Hallelujah. That same month, they landed on the cover of the Village Voice. Separation Sunday, though, at least according to Nicolay, was more of a transition album, seeing as it was his first as a full-fledged band member. Their latest, Boys and Girls in America, is a complete “picture of what we find sound like when we play together.”

“There are certain kinds of albums, in the same way there are certain books and movies, that benefit from re-listens, that you hear something new from every time,” Nicolay explains. “I think Craig’s lyrics have always had that quality, and I think, maybe for the first time, the music has a similar quality.”

Nicolay is right, too. More so than on either of the previous two albums, Boys and Girls marries the band’s classic rock sound to Finn’s lyrical narratives. “A lot of it had to do with introducing a little more melody,” he says. “Background vocals and piano certainly allows for greater melody between the riffs and lyrics, too. I think that gave Craig sort of a platform to add more melody into his performance.”

Melody, maybe, but not necessarily grace. Finn’s lyrics, as poetic as they might be, are difficult to sing along with and don’t exactly lend themselves tonally to movie and television soundtracks. MTV doesn’t really play good music anymore, and contemporary radio has deteriorated to where MTV was a decade ago, with no sign of recovery. This means that, despite the positive press, the masses haven’t yet had the opportunity to discover the Hold Steady’s throwback sound.

Nicolay, however, isn’t concerned. “Commercially speaking, the only reason to get upset about record sales is if you think you’re going to make a lot of money off of record sales, and I just don’t think that’s the reality of the business right now,” he says. “It’s exciting to sell a lot of records, but the different between selling 50,000 records and 100,000 isn’t much. The reaction we get from people coming to the live shows is how you make a living as a band — and that’s somewhere we’re definitely seeing amazing growth over the past couple of years.”

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