The falsetto is not to be trifled with. For centuries, the falsetto has been a sign of power and the desired vocal affect of countless male singers. Of course, it wasn’t until the 20th century that falsettos began to be seen as a sign of vulnerability, emotion, and even fragility. Thankfully, for every effeminate Chris Brown or Chris Martin knock-off polluting the airwaves with cheesy sentimentality we have artists who are willing to use the falsetto in interesting, powerful ways. Some artists even pull it off so well that they create a name for their own aesthetic brand: one of the leading cliches used in journalism to describe a powerful falsetto is “Prince-like.” It’s been too long that the falsetto hasn’t been seen as the desired style of high-art male vocals.
One of the most engaging and interesting albums of recent memory is Love Remains by How To Dress Well. If you forgot that the falsetto could be as emotionally poignant as Kurt Cobain’s screams, think again. One listen to Love Remains will you leave you emotionally floored and physically drained, for Tom Krell’s falsetto is one of the most affecting I’ve heard since the first time my ears graced Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago.
Besides the vocal similarities and the emotional range, similarities between the music of Tom Krell and Justin Vernon stop there. Where Bon Iver is a mostly acoustic project that is clearly the work of a singer-songwriter, giving off the warm vibes of hearing a man sing his sorrows to you on his acoustic guitar, How To Dress Well is a project that is harder to pin down. The melodic structure is influenced heavily by the hooks of r&b classics, and it’s not hard to imagine a hook as strong as the one on “Ready For The World” could dominate the airwaves.
Unfortunately, this is not traditional r&b music, so the universal appeal is lost when you look at the other aspects of the music. The recording of Love Remains is lo-fi to the extreme; when Krell hits his higher notes and uses more dynamic range, his recording equipment crackles and loses its clarity, making for a brilliant affect of music that is both fuzzy and strained. The music often veers on more experimental territory, to the extent that one of his “similar artists” on last.fm is the notable witch-house band oOoOO.
One thing is certain: this record is an entrancing, entertaining, and authentically raw experience that shouldn’t be missed. The music won’t be for everybody, but I can guarantee that you haven’t heard very much music that sounds quite like this, and that in itself is an accomplishment. Of course, when the hooks are slick and the atmosphere is gorgeous, you’re going to catch some people’s attention. I expect great things in the future from How To Dress Well, and it’s not hard to hear some greatness in them now.
It’s been nine years since that tragic day. You know which one I’m talking about – you remember where you were the moment you heard planes had been flown into the World Trade Center in New York City, forever shattering the blissful optimism of the post-Cold War 90s and changing the world and the Manhattan skyline, taking innocent lives with it. Following 9/11, our lives have all changed. There is no bright side to the events of that day, but some of the most moving art has been born out of the ashes. Bruce Springsteen’s The Rising is but one example. Who better than Bruce to create an album to remember those who have passed on before their time, creating an album that didn’t play off fears but celebrated the sacrifice of heroes and mourned the loss of loved ones. Toby Keith – and the rest of CMT – should be ashamed of themselves.
In the months following the tragedy of 9/11, Bruce Springsteen was busy at work on his comeback-album following the reunion of the E Street Band. As Springsteen was trying to decide what it meant to be a part of the E Street Band once again, he was writing songs that would deal with what it meant to be an American following such a horrific attack against our nation. Smartly, while Country Music Television wrote songs imploring a preemptive ass-kicking against the Middle East, Springsteen realized that revenge was not actually going to get the world anywhere; an eye for an eye would only make us all blind with rage and ignorance.
Instead, Springsteen focused his songs on creating a sense of community, creating an album that was a fitting tribute to the fallen heroes and the unfortunate victims of the attacks, and subsequently giving those of us left behind a place to gather and celebrate their lives. Think of it as a musical forum for mourning: Springsteen’s songs on The Rising are the most gospel influenced he has ever written, while still sounding like a natural extension of Springsteen’s 70’s classic rock sound. The album’s opening tracks set the tone. “Lonesome Day” takes the perspective of somebody who has lost a loved one and needs to find the strength to somehow get through each day, one day at a time. “Into The Fire” is a memorial to the firefighters who risked their lives for the lives of others that day, as they travelled “up the stairs, into the fire.” The album continues like this, with song after song of Springsteen telling it like it is, expressing as much mourning as can fit into one album. The song titles practically say it all: “Nothing Man,” “You’re Missing,” “My City of Ruins,” “Empty Sky.” The album’s two highlights are the ones that create the deepest sense of community: “Mary’s Place” and “The Rising.” The former sounds like a call to celebrate the life of a loved one as opposed to mourning their passing, and the later is the best song Springsteen has written since “I’m On Fire.”
With each passing year, the emotions felt on a day like September 11th become less and less tangible as they slowly become memories. With that, too, the sense of deep loss at those who left us that day is simultaneously forgotten, for better or worse. When I listen to The Rising, Springsteen seems to have offered to take on the burden of helping America through her grief. For the first time in years, Springsteen sounded proud to be born in the USA, and seems to have instinctively known that nobody was born to run from tragedy.
Listen: Bruce Springsteen – “The Rising”
It’s no secret: The Hold Steady rank amongst my absolute favorite bands of all time, coming second only to The Greatest Band That Ever Was (if you don’t realize I’m talking about The Beatles, shame on you). This year has really been a huge Hold Steady year for me, too. The band released a new album in May, the absolutely fantastic Heaven Is Whenever, and the band has played seven shows in Southern California, all of which I attended. Adding those seven shows brings my running total of Hold Steady extravaganza’s up to a grand total of twelve – by far the most live shows I have seen by any band. So, what more is there to say about The Hold Steady’s perfectly balanced blend of classic rock riffage, punk-rock energy, and party-rock enthusiasm? I’ll propose a place to start and certainly something that ought to stir up some anxious discussions fueled by fiery fan passion: a list of the Top 12 Hold Steady Songs, presented by yours truly. So, why wait when we can jump right in? Sit back, get a drink, and listen and read as I count down the dozen best songs by my favorite band.
12. “Knuckles” from Almost Killed Me, 2004
Craig Finn has never been funnier. “Knuckles” provides something of an outline for understanding a big part of The Hold Steady mythos: portraits of shady characters, tongue-in-cheek lyricisms, and wars going down in the middle-western states. I’m not sure what this song has more of: killer guitar riffs or wise-cracking puns.
11. “Chillout Tent” from Boys and Girls in America, 2006
Some of the best art gives a snapshot of a feeling or an event, giving the audience the opportunity to return and experience that feeling all over again whenever they like. “Chillout Tent” is just that, a snapshot into the day in the life of a boy and girl who get messed up on the music at a festival and subsequently hook up when they come to in the medical tent. The verdict? “It was kinda sexy, but it was kinda creepy.” No lyric quite captures the nostalgia of the moment like the line “and I never saw that girl again.”
Watch: “Chillout Tent” fan video
10. “Chips Ahoy!” from Boys and Girls in America, 2006 / “The Weekenders” from Heaven Is Whenever, 2010
The second single from Boys and Girls in America was the fantastic “Chips Ahoy!,” a song about the frustrating relationship of a boy and a girl that can predict which horse will win races at the track, featuring Franz Nicolay’s best organ-solo and some of the band’s most fun sing-along ‘woah-oh-ohs’ ever. Who knew that the sequel would be just as good? “The Weekenders” captures the two of them catching-up years after the candle of romance has long flickered out, but still yearning to rekindle the flame that made “Chips Ahoy!” such an endlessly fascinating song. In the end, I bet no one learns a lesson.
Watch: “The Weekenders” live
9. “Stay Positive” from Stay Positive, 2008
The title track from the more mature and darker-themed Stay Positive album is centered around the belief that things will always get better if you believe they will. The darkest hour always comes before the dawn, and in the case of “Stay Positive,” Craig Finn sings from the point-of-view of a character who has nothing left to believe in. When your world crumbles around you, we gotta stay positive.
Watch: “Stay Positive” music video
8. “Ask Her For Some Adderall” from Stay Positive (vinyl), 2008
The Hold Steady have a plethora of incredible b-sides that range drastically in style and tone, but none of them hit quite as strong as “Ask Her For Some Adderall” (it was included in the middle of the track-listing on the vinyl release of Stay Positive, but not on the CD). The song is a rip-roaring rocker that blows past you in less than three minutes, as Craig Finn weaves a careful story by giving you all the details and none of the plot. It’s a circular head-trip that sounds just as fresh today as it did the first time I heard it, all the way back at my first Hold Steady show in November of 2007.
7. “Barely Breathing” from Heaven Is Whenever, (2010)
The exceptional second-half of Heaven Is Whenever is anchored by this dark, mischievous rocker that finds lyrics about the self-implosion of the hardcore punk scene tumbling from Craig’s lips. You’ll be hanging off every word, all the way up until the fantastic clarinet solo that proves definitively that clarinets can rock, too. It ends with a message that everybody should take to heart: no one wins at violent shows.
Watch: “Barely Breathing”
6. “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” from Separation Sunday, (2005)
This might actually be The Hold Steady’s most accessible song. It’s a portrait of Finn’s favorite lyrical character, the messed-up Hallelujah that the kids all call Holly. Finn’s lyrical dexterity is matched brilliantly moment-for-moment by a suspiciously catchy guitar line that blows up into hugely anthemic chords. The Hold Steady absolutely perfected the cliched tension and release technique with the final minute of this song, as Finn sings about how “city center used to be the center of our scene.” Nobody goes there anymore, but you’ll always return to this song. Damn right you’ll rise again.
5. “Slapped Actress” from Stay Positive, (2008)
Ending Stay Positive with this song wasn’t a gamble, it was a necessity. On an album that is a sweepingly cinematic as a Tarantino movie, no song is more sweeping and cinematic. Featuring chugging guitars, gentle keyboards, and some of Finn’s most cryptic lyrics ever, “Slapped Actress” is an anthem where life becomes art and art becomes life. “Slapped Actress” begins with a wall of guitars and ends with a choir of voices, announcing that maybe someday the characters in The Hold Steady’s songs will achieve what they’ve always dreamed of: their very own Unified Scene.
Watch: “Slapped Actress”
4. “Stuck Between Stations” from Boys and Girls in America, (2006)
Any album that opens with a song quoting Jack Kerouac is asking to not be taken seriously. Somehow, The Hold Steady pulled it off, and “Stuck Between Stations” has become their most universally adored and critically acclaimed song. With bright keyboards and powerful guitars, the band packs more energy into this song that perhaps any song in their repertoire. Lyrically, Craig Finn pulls off a hat-trick of sorts: he quotes Kerouac, narrates the suicide of poet John Berryman, and creates an anthem about drinking, being young, and being in love in America.
3. “How A Resurrection Really Feels” from Separation Sunday, (2005)
There has never been a more triumphant Hold Steady song than “How A Resurrection Really Feels.” Detailing the moment when our favorite hoodrat Holly returns after being disappeared for years, the band creates a feeling that makes you feel like you’ve truly been saved by rock and roll. As cheesy as that all sounds, once you’ve seen them close a concert with this song, you know it’s true. It’s all about the best guitar riff Tad Kubler has ever written. Or maybe it’s about the epic build-up and repeated refrain of “walk on back.” Maybe it’s the way that the rest of the song fades away while the gentle counter-melody of Franz Nicolay’s guitar rings in the deafening silence. Maybe The Hold Steady is how a resurrection really feels.
2. “Killer Parties” from Almost Killed Me, (2004)
The Hold Steady aren’t a band that really get comfortable while they are playing music. Every song has change-ups when you least expect them, drastically altering tempo, rhythm, tone, texture, and feeling. So, when you hear “Killer Parties” in the context of their discography, it really is an anomaly, because for seven minutes The Hold Steady sit back and simply settle into a hypnotizing, head-bobbing groove. They let the music inhabit a space, surrounding and engulfing you, swallowing you up like a pill or a shot of your favorite hard alcohol. The rhythm section keeps it tight throughout, while the guitars slowly get louder and noisier, and Craig Finn keeps it short and simple. He also delivers one line that might as well be the perfect lyric: “And if they ask why we left in the first place / Say we were young and we were so in love / I guess we just needed space.” Ending their first album, this song signaled that The Hold Steady were a force to be reckoned with, and the legend of Ybor City was created.
Watch: “Killer Parties” fan video
1. “First Night” from Boys and Girls in America, (2006)
The centerpiece of The Hold Steady’s most critically acclaimed album is “First Night,” a slow lament played on piano and acoustic guitar. Like a wise middle-aged man sitting next to you at the bar, Finn divulges snippets of information in a drunken ramble, never really making sense but giving you a vivid, particular feeling that their is a lesson to be learned in the details he’s telling you. There’s wisdom behind his words, as well as heartache and pain. Finn tells it like he’s been there, and you believe him. Not many rock songs can pull off using three-dollar words like “insatiable” or “inconsolable” as if they were tossed off in every song on the radio, but then again, Craig Finn isn’t your typical lyricist. He’s a barroom poet, a folk singer stuck in a bar-band, a punk kid stuck in a middle-aged body, and a broken heart stuck inside a world of painful memories and everlasting nostalgia. When he sings about his characters being upset “because we can’t get as high as we got / on that first night,” he’s not talking about a yearning for drugs; he’s describing the universally understood desire for the happiness and release that is created by the promise of nostalgia. The word nostalgia, after all, comes from the Latin for “pain from an old wound.” When the song reaches its violin-assisted crescendo that finds a choir of youthful strangers repeating the album’s title, you’ll be in awe. When it reaches the explosive catharsis, you’ll be inconsolable, unhinged and uncontrollable.
Watch: “First Night”
Sometimes, you stumble upon a song that makes you wonder why you waited so long to discover an artist. It’s ridiculous that you even considered waiting to check them out, especially once you’ve discovered how awesome they are. Last summer, that happened with me and Elliott Smith. A few summers ago, it happened with The Hold Steady, who are without a doubt my favorite non-Beatles band.
This week, that’s happening with me and Liz Phair. A singer-songwriter from the 90s, the only Liz Phair song I had ever been familiar with was the ultra-poppy “Why Can’t I?” I am ashamed to admit that I let that song color my impression of her music for ages, but I finally got my hands on a copy of the magnificent Exile In Guyville this week. And now, I can’t stop listening. Phair’s magnum opus is considered by many to be something like lightning-in-a-bottle; she never replicated her success that she had with Exile. Everything about the album screams 20th century female angst, and rightfully so. The album cover is a passionate and emotional image of Phair looking to release herself from the bondage of the sexualized rockist criticism provided by misogynous critics, capturing a moment of unadulterated feminine energy. Even the album title is a play on the classic title of a record that drips with male libido and machismo, The Rolling Stones’ Exile on Main Street.
One of the highlights from this record is the powerful and deeply felt “Divorce Song,” which reflects on the dissolution of what one can imagine was a fiery and powerful relationship. Phair delivers her lyrics in a restrained, emotionally hidden manner, revealing one of her most tender performances put to tape. It’s powerful in the same way that courage is powerful, but her courage and conviction in this song is fueled by fear and heartache. It’s an uncertain future for anybody with troubled relationships, but it’s also uplifting to feel your heart break. If love doesn’t hurt, you aren’t doing it right.
Listen: Liz Phair – “Divorce Song”