At this point, I’ve listened to more than half of the music on my iPod. I should finish this stupid experiment and go back to listening to what I want in the car in October. I’ve had a hard time getting into new music for the past few months because I do so much of my music-listening in the car, so it’ll be nice to be unshackled from my own craziness. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Once again, I’m going to talk about a few specific bands:
The Hold Steady: Compared to a lot of the bands on my iPod, I haven’t been listening to these guys for all that long. Around the time that Boys and Girls in America came out, I downloaded (and shortly thereafter bought) the album because it was getting really amazing reviews, and although Craig Finn’s “singing” style takes some acclimating, I soon came to appreciate the interesting (if wholly unrelatable) stories, the anthemic choruses (especially when gang vocals are involved, like on “Chips Ahoy”) and the booze-soaked mayhem that serves as the glue holding it all together. By the time live album A Positive Rage dropped a couple of years later, it made perfect sense that Finn was ridiculously drunk throughout their set at the Metro in Chicago. I regret having not seen them live yet, but they’re on my short list of bands to make it a priority to see one of these days.
Almost Killed Me tends to be a fan-favorite album, a debut so good that it seems like the best the band could ever have to offer. I have a certain amount of perspective having arrived to the party a few years late, but I think that it’s also impossible for me to realize what the album was at the time, and can only see it in context of the band’s later (stellar) work. Regardless, it’s interesting when a band opens their debut album with something like “A Positive Jam,” a simultaneously cynical and hopeful (no, really) song about starting a band. Actually, it’s a lot like Art Brut’s “Formed A Band,” right down to the semi-spoken singing. I really, really regret not seeing those two bands together a few years ago.
Listen: The Hold Steady - The Swish
Separation Sunday refines the storytelling, eschewing the wide-angle pastiche for a more focused narrative. Whereas Almost Killed Me drew some of its connections by simply repeating lyrics, here Finn threads his stories together in more subtle, thematic kinds of ways. Characters established in Almost Killed Me show up for more boozy/druggy nights which occasionally go sideways and up in hospitalization or even death. This is what I meant before by urelatable–these characters have experiences that I can empathize with only on the most basic level; I think the fact that it’s a glimpse inside a world I’ll never know is part of the appeal.
Listen: The Hold Steady - Stevie Nix
By the time we get to Boys and Girls in America, everyone is firing on all cylinders. The songs are catchier, the lyrics are more poignant than ever and the production is significantly better. Granted, sometimes having more money for production results in an album that’s all flash and sheen and no substance, but in this case I think it simply allows Finn and the rest of the band to take their time to record everything in a way that allows the music to interplay and intertwine the same way the lyrics and the songs as a whole do.
Listen: The Hold Steady - Chips Ahoy
Stay Positive is even better. My friend Peter once told me that The Bouncing Souls’ The Gold Record sounds like summer pressed on a disc, and while I basically agree with that sentiment, I think Stay Positive is an even better sonic embodiment of that season. There are a few ups and downs, but overall the message of the album is evident from its title, and it spends 11 tracks convincing you why you should. By the time the album closes with “Slapped Actress,” you feel inspired to go out and do something interesting with your life, knowing that even if things don’t go as planned, the end result is going to be totally awesome.
Listen: The Hold Steady - Slapped Actress
A Positive Rage was released next, but was actually recorded at the end of the band’s touring in support of Boys and Girls. It’s not the best live album ever, but it’s commendable that the band simply recorded one night and released the result, rather than recording for a few nights and taking the best takes of their songs.
Listen: The Hold Steady - Ask Her For Adderall
Heaven is Whenever has the unfortunate distinction of being the band’s first album without longtime keyboardist Franz Nicolay. His loss kind of flattened the band’s sound a bit, and the result is less dynamic and therefore less appealing to me. It doesn’t help that Finn also decided that this would be a good album to stop singing about the characters that had come to define the band’s progression. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just a letdown after two truly incredible albums and a generally stellar discography.
Listen: The Hold Steady - The Sweet Part of the City
The Killers: I bought into the hype of Hot Fuss in 2004 thanks to my friend Ben. In retrospect, I’m not sure what about it appealed to me exactly, but somehow the mix of bombastic production and the swagger of Brandon Flowers and his cohort knowingly sticking the landing of their debut grabbed me and refused to let go. It remains by far their best album.
Listen: The Killers - All These Things That I've Done
I was really excited for Sam’s Town, and at first, I liked it a lot. Lead single “When You Were Young” seemed to have all of the same elements that made Hot Fuss so great, but it turned out to be an aberration on that album rather than the harbinger of another stellar collection of songs. When I listened to it recently, I could tell why I ultimately took it out of rotation prematurely–it was just kind of boring for the most part.
Listen: The Killers - When You Were Young
Day & Age remedied the monotony of Sam’s Town somewhat, returning more often to bombast in songs like Spaceman and Neon Tiger, but by this time it came out in 2008, I just didn’t really care that much anymore. I had already outgrown whatever irrational impulse had made me like Hot Fuss so much, so while I listened to it a few times out of curiosity, I was never all that stoked for it in the first place, so it quickly faded out of regular rotation just like Sam’s Town before it.
Listen: The Killers - Neon Tiger
The Loved Ones: I first heard of The Loved Ones when Peter told me to listen to Build and Burn. It was good advice, even if I didn’t realize it at first. The album failed to grab me initially, making a mediocre first impression, but it grew on me quite a bit, to the point where I ended up picking up their earlier album Keep Your Heart and eventually their follow-up EP, Distractions.
Keep Your Heart is melodic punk through-and-through. Kind of like Craig Finn, lead singer Dave Hause evokes the idea of the heart and how to keep it over and over again, going so far as to close the album with a short reprise of the first song’s chorus as the last track fades out. Hause has the kind of gravelly voice that’s perfect for fast music with an earnest, emotional core. It sounds a bit like an overcaffeinated Hot Water Music album, but in the best possible way.
Listen: The Loved Ones - Suture Self
In context, Build and Burn is kind of odd. After the album described above, the band mellowed out a bit for the follow-up, which is part of why I didn’t like it at first. A lot of Build and Burn is pretty mid-tempo, which initially bored me, but the more I listened, the more I found that I really liked the lyrics, and the music was more dynamic than I initially gave it credit for. The emotionality comes out more strongly as a result of slowing things down and kind of cleaning them up, especially in the we-must-rebuild-it Katrina-themed “Louisiana” and album closer “I Swear”.
Listen: The Loved Ones - I Swear
Distractions tries to mix the more punkish sound of Keep Your Heart with the more emotionally-driven Build and Burn and mostly fails to capture what made either album so good. Then again, it’s a six-songed EP that is exactly what its title implies–a few light diversions to keep the band’s audience sated while they work on something meatier. Granted, Distractions came out more than two years ago, but despite being fairly mediocre in comparison to the work that came before it, I’m still pretty stoked for new material.
Listen: The Loved Ones - Distracted
In the next couple of days, I’m planning to write about Less Than Jake’s discography in its own post. Being my favorite band throughout high school and beyond, it only seems right that I put a little more time and effort into dissecting their lengthy oeuvre and why their music holds a special place in my heart.