The world of rock and roll is full of stories: rags to riches, burning out instead of fading away, beating the devil in a fiddle contest and so on. Rock is almost as much a literary genre as a musical one. Craig Finn and his band The Hold Steady are kind of like Charles Bukowski with a backbeat behind him. Finn’s tales of woe are like a James Michener novel set within America’s dark and seedy underbelly. Listeners are given a guided tour of dank bars, broken dreams and broken hearts. Open Door Policy, the band’s eighth studio album, provides another dark and weird chapter in its musical oeuvre.
Opener “The Feelers” begins with sparse piano and Finn’s dreamy monologue. The mood is vaguely reminiscent of a lounge act in a smoky piano bar featured in some film David Lynch never made. The vibe changes as scratchy guitar and pulsing percussion pushes the song into Sonic Youth territory with Finn’s rich, droney cadence sounding a bit like Lee Ranaldo’s spoken lines on “Eric’s Trip.” A mournful slide guitar solo adds a touch more alt-country melancholy more akin to Magnolia Electric Company or Palace Brothers. The song’s labyrinthine plot involves commerce, infidelity, black lights and alien posters.
One of the first rules in storytelling is to show not tell, and Finn often simply describes a series of events, allowing the audience to intuit the emotional undercurrents the character may be experiencing. After all, it worked for Hemingway. But Finn and company have the luxury of providing a musical soundtrack to augment the tension and intensity in the narratives.
On Open Door Policy‘s best songs, the musical form serves the content. The Bukowski barfly vibe of “Spices” rides on a bending, seasick guitar riff. Finn delivers the tale of inebriated woe: “And all the bartеnders were strangling thеir shakers/ It was springtime in the sweet part of the city/ It’s nice to hit the taverns with familiar companions/ I kind of like it when she’s laughing at me.” Finn then juxtaposes the impenetrable platitudes with a sudden flurry of details. “We’re at the table and she’s yelling out her order/ Vanilla vodka in a diet Dr. Pepper/ Something wrapped in black wax paper/ We’re gonna see where this goes,” he sings. The anthemic chorus provides some much-needed release after the tense, emotionless description of events.
The heavy yet melodic rock of “Lanyards” evokes comparisons to Pavement, and Finn’s emotionally discordant vocals on “Burn the Bread” sound a little like Dinosaur Jr’s J. Mascis singing over weird white funk guitar, horns and siren-like vocal “wooo’s.”
On “Heavy Covenant” The Hold Steady is able to evoke a theatrical intensity with just kick drum and organ. Finn adds to the mystery with language that is evocative yet opaque. “Sleeper city on a power play/ In the garden with a day to spare/ And if you know the perfect words to say/ You can get it almost anywhere,” he sings. Here again, though, Finn punctuates the platitudes with a sudden flurry of detailed narrative: “First I watched him play his instrument/ A resonator with a missing string/ Then I asked him about the songs he did/ How he decides what songs he’s gonna sing/ Then I asked if I could shake his hands/ And I palmed him almost 40 bucks/ Then I asked about the other stuff.” Finn revives the mystery masterfully with that last line.
The Hold Steady are themselves another chapter in a long story of poets who are musicians and musicians who are poets. The New York sextet is successfully swimming in the same brackish water in which The Jim Carroll Band, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan were baptized, where the ocean of literature mingles with the power chords of rock and roll.