Held in comically high esteem by a devoted cult following, former Twin Cities, now Brooklyn-based singer and songwriter Craig Finn finally won me over as a live act at the recent Pitchfork Music Festival, where the more annoying aspects of his blue collar poet act took a back seat to the unapologetic, rah-rah-rousing classic-rock bar band appeal of his band's rootsy riffs and rhythms. But the Hold Steady runs into serious trouble on record, where its simple charms are overwhelmed by its leader's artistic pretensions.
The band's last album, "Boys and Girls in America" (2006), took its title from a line by Jack Kerouac, but nothing Finn wrote ever came close to his Beat hero's Zen observations of the hardscrabble life. Clearly buying into his own hype as the indie Springsteen, he continues to overreach lyrically in his attempts to craft mini-melodramas. But, as evidenced by the climactic chant of "Sequestered in Memphis"--"I went there on business/Subpoenaed in Texas/Sequestered in Memphis"--he never really delivers a satisfying tale; I defy anyone to explain what that alleged story-song is about.
Even more annoyingly, the group decorates its simple bar-band grooves with useless filigree such as harpsichord and vintage '70s synthesizer. Given the lack of anthemic melodies this time around, the end result isn't even as appealing as Meat Loaf, much less the E Street Band of "Darkness on the Edge of Town." And Finn does himself no favors with his constant name-dropping of musical idols ranging from Iggy Pop to Joe Strummer; "Me and my friends are like the drums on 'Lust for Life'/We pound it out on floor toms/Our psalms are sing-along songs," he sings on the single "Constructive Summer."
Listen, Craig, you wish you could write a song as good as "Lust for Life," much less anything by Joe Strummer at his best.