Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Album Review: Almost Killed Me

Ed note, this album actually came out in 2004, but it's new to me and, judging by its sales, especially when compared to The Hold Steady's next two albums, it would be new to most people.

Craig Finn begins The Hold Steady's debut album, Almost Killed Me, by softly summarizing, decade by decade, the last 80 years of 20th century American life. When he hits the new millennium the loud sloppy Thin Lizzyesque riffs that soak the next 40 minutes kick in and Finn calls out the "sniffling idie kids" to square us at 2004, before closing the opener by declaring "I got bored when I didn't have a band, so I started a band, man."

Now that he has laid out how we got here, and why he is here, Finn starts the next track, The Swish, by telling us exactly what he's going to be telling us about: "Pills and powders baby, powder and pills, we spent the night last night in Beverly Hills," Finn screeches and thus begins a journey of fear and loathing up and down the land he had just serenaded.

From Shaker Heights to Newport News to Ybor City to the mystical West Coast to Massachusetts to Michigan to the Twin Cities to the City of Brotherly Love nothing is left undrunk, unsnorted or unswallowed -- even things you've never heard of or couldn't imagine doing that with. Along the way you meet the bartenders and the bartenders' friends, the bouncers and the runaways, the cab drivers and the meth-cooking militia men, the hustlers, the ravers and, of course, the rock and roll band.

Steely Dan is the only other group I can think of that dives so deeply, and with such narrative aplomb, into the darkness that lurks when the good people have gone to bed. And while Becker and Fagen introduce you to the bumps in the night with the cool detachment expected from the studio virtuosos they are, The Hold Steady gets down and dirty like the beer-paid bar band they sound like.

Finn, the heart and soul of the operation, employs many tactics of the hack lyricist: He's found of rhyming words with themselves; he can't help recycling his best lines; he drops famous names incessantly; he repeats the name of his own band with the awkwardness of a NASCAR driver taking care of a sponsor; and he even undermines his own credibility by admitting he could be making it all up and that his characters are probably lying too.

Yet Finn pulls it off with the jaded assuredness of a beat poet and more than a touch of the postmodern "clever" he spends some of his own words railing against. So while the lyrical structure is a mess, and Finn's jumpy, sarcastic singing voice makes Bob Dylan sound like Mariah Carey, the mess works, and frames Finn as a story teller who can tell a story in a different kind of way.

The ten songs play out like the wild nights they immortalize: A long crescendo followed by a quicker fall. In Almost Killed Me's bittersweet closer, Killer Parties, Finn looks around to see who made it and tries to figure out what the hell just happened.

What did just happen is an album that announces itself with an 80-year history lesson has lived up to the promise of its audacious beginning. Not because it's important, or literary, or even that deep, but because it's outrageously fun. Which is what, above all else, music should be.

Almost Killed Me: A

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