Tuesday, August 9, 2011

"40 Bucks" - The Hold Steady

"Craig Finn is an Irish poet!"

That was me, talking to (err, yelling at) a friend two years ago. At the time the Hold Steady was in the midst of absolutely destroying a 90 minute set to close out a Chicago block party, which might be the perfect showcase to see these boozy Minnesota-via-Brooklynites who sound like Zeppelin meets the Clash with a little Kerouac thrown in for good measure. Finn is the band's songwriter and he writes dense, intertwining narratives about invented characters that stretch across albums. His songs manage to be both cerebral and visceral and have that ring of vérité that comes from writing out of experience.

The Hold Steady have never been afraid to reserve classic songs for B-Sides or other non-album sources (see: "Girls Like Status" and "You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came With)") and "40 Bucks" is perhaps the ultimate example of this. The song came as a bonus download with the purchase of their 2009 live album, A Positive Rage and has never, to my knowledge, been played live but it's one of those songs that in another, better reality would be a massive radio hit.

The band lurches to life with a brief false drum start before Tad Kuebler lays down what can only be described as a "sweet guitar lick". It sounds so good that you spend half the song thinking that it must have been stolen from some lost 70's AM hit. The song is about a woman whose not as young as she used to be trying to grapple with growing old and still loving rock n' roll, perhaps a little too much. Finn is economical, painting an incredibly empathetic and complex portrait in just three verses with lines so on-target that they cut you just a little bit scattered throughout.

Finn manages to wring incredible grandeur and meaning out of a fairly straightforward story of a woman who sees a show and ends up letting go a little too much with the band. She's the product of a broken family and whose "bio-dad played bass guitar / in a five-piece out of Wichita". She spends her life chasing good times and music, never managing to fill that paternal hole in her life, even after meeting her father one night on the road. But she can't escape the need to be close to musicians, helping the band score some drugs and then paying for them. As Finn spins his tale of ill-advised partying and deep-seated longing, the band shuffles along behind him, swelling with energy before bottoming out after the choruses, mirroring the rise and fall narrative. Kuebler's guitar is grounded by a bumpy drums and perhaps the last piano part of mustachioed multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay's career with the band.

The band in the song apparently "had a little local hit" which Finn calls "a sad, slow waltz about a pure and simple love", perhaps realizing that that's what "40 Bucks" is. People love music because it can represent so many things - innocence, family, freedom. But in the end we'll all grow up and we'll all grow old and music (well, rock n' roll, at least) can only help us so far along the way before passing us by. Finn reminds us that "our dreams sing along to the music of our youth", which for so many people is sad but true. I guess we just have to be happy that we get to sing along to the Hold Steady.

40 Bucks - The Hold Steady
I'm not sure if the album still comes the the download codes for this song, but A Positive Rage is still worth owning as a chronicle of a crackin' live band at the peak of their powers.

Bonus Track
History Lesson, Pt. 2 [Minutemen] - The Hold Steady
For a riff-and-piano heavy bar band, the Hold Steady sound surprisingly good playing acoustic, as this cover of a Double Nickels On The Dime classic with Tad Kuebler on guitar and Franz Nicolay on accordion proves.

No comments:

Post a Comment