The Hold Steady - Separation Sunday (Cover Artwork)

The Hold Steady

Separation Sunday (2005)


So concept albums are the next big thing. What with Coheed and the Volta stirring things up with their epic (if sometimes completely incomprehensible) tales of fantasy and Green Day redefining Spin and Rolling Stones' definition of rock. Yep, it seems like tying the songs on your album together into an overarching narrative is the thing to do these days. It's not a bad idea, really. It makes an album's work stand by itself, and can add a deeper level of meaning to a band's songs. Generally, I like concept albums, so this trend is pretty OK in my book.

One of my favorite recent concept albums was the Streets' A Grand Don't Come for Free. I really dug the straight-forward narrative style of the album that made for some great character development. That's something music doesn't often deliver, character development, and that's where the Hold Steady come in. I knew nothing of the Hold Steady (besides Nothing Nice to Say's shout-out to them a while back) prior to my picking up Separation Sunday on a whim a few days ago. I popped the disc into my car and received some very enjoyable, danceable, garage-punk rock. You have your driving 4/4 beats and your peppy guitar lines, and it all seems pretty run-of-the-mill at first. The main distinguishing factor of this band is the singer, and specifically, his delivery. He doesn't so much sing as rhythmically talk, with very musical inflection. I realize that makes little to no sense, but there aren't a whole lot of singers out there sounding like him. It's like he's telling you a story while the instruments give you Peter and the Wolf style emotional cues. It's a great medium for storytelling, and it begs you to listen closer to hear what they're getting at.

The story is delivered in the same deadpan directness as the Streets. There is imagery and metaphor and all that good stuff, but it doesn't obscure the flow of the story and makes it quite easy to follow. Some can call my fondness of this over, say, Frances the Mute, intellectual laziness, but I really enjoyed rocking out and hearing a good yarn get spun at the same time. The intelligence of the lyrics is impressive, and I had fun seeing if I could pick up on all the references they were making, and the points they were trying to make. Hell, they even dropped a Dillinger Four bomb:

Nelson Algren came to Paddy at a party at the dead end alley. He told him what to celebrate.
See? These guys are pretty cool. The other interesting lyrical tic is the use of Biblical and Catholic imagery. Say what you want about the Catholic Church, but you can't really beat the apocalypse and crucifixions for dramatic moments. They're not a Christian band, but you can tell they've opened a bible and seen what's inside, and that's definitely not a bad thing to do. It's always good when a band can demonstrate they're well read, and know about the shit they're dropping.

"So why the hell," I hear you asking, "do you keep mentioning the Streets? These two bands sound nothing alike?" Good question. I think this album has a lot in common with A Grand Don't Come for Free. Neither one is a precisely shocking example of skill in their respective genres, but the excellent storytelling mixed with the overall coolness of sound made it a fun listen. Separation Sunday will not redefine modern rock and roll music, but they bring it hard and put a whole lot of damn energy and thought into what they're putting across. I would recommend this to anyone who likes old-school rock music that you can dance to, and doesn't mind hearing a good story too.