you fall asleep in your make-up, you wake up with a blemish

As if I don’t attribute enough of my musical taste to her already, when I left Scotland this summer, Lis sent me home with an overwhelming sampling of her CD collection.

The most heavily-featured artist in that lot was a band called The Hold Steady. (And if you read her blog as avidly as I do, you know that she’s pretty much a goon for Craig Finn. There was even that minor incident of music piracy that got her in a bit of Interweb trouble last year.)

I have no idea why I initially felt an aversion to listening to The Hold Steady. It couldn’t have been because Lis recommended them; after all, about 75 percent of my current favorite bands were direct or indirect recommendations from her. Maybe it was that I had just come out of a very volatile and changing period in my life and I wasn’t quite ready to introduce more change–even if it was just the addition of new music. Whatever the reason, I put off listening to them, I mean, really listening to them until about a month ago.

They would pop up on shuffle occasionally and I would be, I don’t know, ‘struck’ doesn’t seem the right word, but maybe ‘intriqued’ works; anyway, I would be intriqued by how instantly familiar they would seem to me. Like I’d known them all along, and yet had never paid attention. I was gearing up to make a drive back to Cincinnati, and with my iPod hook-up out of commission in my truck, I decided to go the old-fashioned route and burn a few CDs to carry me through the four-hour drive. Out of curiosity, I included The Hold Steady’s Stay Positive.

The first time I really listened to that album, I was driving through south-central Kentucky on I-65. “Constructive Summer” kind of punched me in the face after having been listening to Iron & Wine’s The Shepherd’s Dog for the past hour or so. I just remember giggling uncontrollably when the lyrics got to the part about “double-whiskey-coke-no-ice” and drinking on water towers (“Get hammered!”). I loved it. Instantly.

Every single song on that album was perfect, even more so because it was like listening to a book on tape, only with trumpets! By the third time the CD repeated itself, I was speeding through Florence and singing along with every song. I should have started at the beginning of their discography, but it didn’t really matter–I got to know the characters just fine without having listened to their backstories.

I would not say I’m as deeply attached to The Hold Steady as Lis is, but they have earned a very, very significant place in my heart. When I got back to Nashville after that trip home, I listened to their whole discography in order. In some small part of my mind, I was reminded of Bret Easton Ellis’s Rules of Attraction–how his screwed up characters made being well-to-do, New England college-kids-turned-druggies look so good. Holly and Gideon and Charlemagne made being groupies from Tampa sound like so much fun, and Ybor City sounded like heaven and hell, existing at the same time in the same place.

Katrina always makes fun of me, describing The Hold Steady as “the most nondescript band” she’s ever heard. And maybe she’s not too far off the mark–as background music, they blend in very well. But the best parts of their music are the subtle parts. It’s the storytelling, it’s the confessional way Craig Finn writes about Catholicism, it’s the trumpets that show up in unexpected places. It’s the way, when you really listen to the lyrics, they’ll hit you in the gut with no fair warning. It’s the way “Two-Handed Handshake” gives me quite a bit of hope and makes me feel positive about life. It’s the way “Lord, I’m Discouraged” is a sad, sweet story about the fiercest kind of love there is. And how “First Night” reminds me a little of myself at 18.

The music is so consistent, that unless you’re really paying attention, you never see how drastically and how beautifully the songs switch from one subject or emotion to another. It amazes me how flexible they are: I can dance to them, I can sing along with them, I can cry to them, I can drink to them, and I can laugh with them. The only other band I’ve ever found that can make me feel the same way is Marah, which is exactly why I love them. Given enough time, I think The Hold Steady has the potential to overtake Marah as my favorite band. Which is saying quite a lot.

After tomorrow, when my 365 Day Self-Portait comes to a close, I’m officially calling it quits on my interminable 101 Things to Do in 1,001 Days list. But if I were to continue it, January 2009’s playlist would almost certainly be dominated by The Hold Steady, because it’s one thing to start it with a positive jam, and it’s another thing to see it on through.


3 Responses to “you fall asleep in your make-up, you wake up with a blemish”

  1. This post made my heart sing. “You Can Make Him Like You”, obviously. Different strokes and all that, but lyrically, I can’t see how anybody could describe the Hold Steady as nondescript. Of course, there are reasons they grab me so intensely; I guess it’s a fucked-up-Catholic-girl thing.

  2. Good write-up. I certainly appreciate this website.
    Stick with it!

  1. 1 i’ll take two of what you’re having « Feet on Polished Floor

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