» Full Dark, No Stars - Stephen King's new novella questions mankind's ability to trust others.
[02.21.2011 by Bridget Doyle]


 » The Top 30 Albums of 2010 - Fashionably, fabulously late, our favorite music (and believe me, there was a LOT) of 2010, the year that some have called the best year for music ever. And only some of those fools work here. Plenty of usual suspects, lots of ties and a few surprises that I won't spoil, including our unexpected #1.
[12.24.2010 by The LAS Staff]


 » Live: Surfer Blood/The Drums at Lincoln Hall, Chicago, IL - Remember when Weezer used to put together records that you could sing along to and rock out to? That's what Surfer Blood's show was like!
[11.04.2010 by Cory Tendering]

Music Reviews

Screaming Females - Castle Talk
»Screaming Females
Castle Talk
Don Giovanni
Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross - The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
»Trent Reznor & Atticus Ross
The Social Network [Original Soundtrack]
The Null Corporation
Deerhunter - Halcyon Digest
Halcyon Digest
No Age - Everything in Between
»No Age
Everything in Between
Sub Pop
Robyn - Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
Body Talk Pt. 1/ Body Talk Pt. 2
The Walkmen - Lisbon
»The Walkmen
Fat Possum
The Hold Steady
Separation Sunday
Frenchkiss Records

Rating: 9/10 ?

May 3, 2005
When it comes to most artists, we gauge progress by how much they've pushed forward, experimented or broken out of their pre-established molds; for what we know of the Hold Steady that doesn't seem a fair mark of success, as with character-driven rock, it's all about continuity. This is the next episode of what I hope will be a lengthy series, and if you figured their follow-up to Almost Killed Me would be The Hangover Album, you'd be wrong - there's a lot more drinking to do, but for different reasons this time.

We start with a bittersweet nod to Craig Finn's former band, Lifter Puller, with the track "Hornets! Hornets!", which sounds more like anything off of Fiestas + Fiascos than much of what he's done in his new outfit. Judging from the lyrics, things are back to being listless: "She said always remember never to trust me/She said that the first night she met me/She said there's gonna be a time when I'm gonna have to go with whoever's gonna get me the highest." The sound, to match, is a little dark and foreboding, bubbling with nastiness and unearthing the oh-so-seedy underbelly of the city. If you'll recall, Almost Killed Me started with the witty, forcibly optimistic "Positive Jam," so the difference of "Hornets! Hornets!" shows how times have changed (and returned to the usual form) since last we met.

With the apocalyptic tale, "Cattle and Creeping Things," we see that downward progression has been drastic. From "Positive Jam" to "four guys on horses and violent red visions famine and death and pestilence and war"? What have we gotten ourselves into here? Finn iterates throughout the song, "We've been through this before," and it's almost head-spinning - decay has no boundaries, and from lucklessness to pestilence, it gets boring after a while. It's a powerful statement to make, but it describes urban weariness better than I, for one, have ever heard in a recent rock opus.

From the humdrum end of days, we move to the plights of misguided love, and it all starts to make sense. "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" and "Banging Camp" are both sideways tales of misplaced feeling, comparing being in a drug bust to the denial of affection and stating that lovers, as strings around fingers, can never be tied together. The flow of these first four tracks read like a Jon Dos Passos novel where each snapshot of industry, poverty and mistaken lust are interwoven by proximity, not that the characters or their circumstances have ever met. The vignettes make sense together because the world is depressing, in a way that a "Positive Jam" seems more sarcastic than ever.

"Charlemagne in Sweatpants" is just the break we needed at this point - if you'll recall, Charlemagne is one of the characters we met on Almost Killed Me: a sly, manipulative dolt who gets his share of the action. Its lyrics, professed fittingly as a "comeback story," tell a parable of salvation in drugs - to escape depression through a pouch hidden in your socks. It's not sober, but it's sobering, showing the culture for its illicit greatness and its hollow center.

Sure, Separation Sunday may feature hilarious lines like "Charlemagne's got something in his sweatpants," and it may sound just as we remembered - like a sweet, sweat-stained Springsteen album, straight from the bar - but this one isn't just about having fun. That's where continuity gets joined by the more traditional measurement of progress: the sound and the characters may be similar, but the Hold Steady have definitely moved forward to harder subjects. This isn't just Almost Killed Me 2, it's an exploration of what lies beyond that initial surface - and the truth ain't pretty.

With all the destructiveness and the fear and the loneliness strung throughout Separation Sunday, the theme that seems to recur most is salvation. In "Stevie Nix," as in many of the other tracks, characters are looking for something more than what they've found amid all the emptiness. They're starting to realize how scary the scene is when they take a closer look, and while they also "get screwed up by religion," they're still in silent prayer when things get too dehumanized. They're still hoping God is on their side to take them out of their troubles.

Hope is always driven by fear, it seems, and Separation Sunday is all about a distant, pensive perspective, the likes of which makes the album's title all the more revealing. Growing up can be paralyzing when you've got nothing to hold on to, and the once invincible characters found in the chronology of Lifter Puller are now scrambling in desperation. It's powerful stuff, too real to be fabricated.

When we hit the final two tracks, "Crucifixion Cruise" and "How a Resurrection Really Feels," we see that another character, Holly, has found a little peace in letting go, even when she's not always sure of herself. She asks, "Lord what do you recommend?/To a real sweet girl who's made some not sweet friends?" She bursts into a confessional with glass in her hair, "gone for years," she claims, and "finally back." Running to her ill-advised companions, she shakily tells them not to set her off in her old ways again, and they look to her like she's got the wisdom they've been so achingly lacking.

It's an exciting and tenuous place to end the album, as Holly and her friends could go either way, but that's life, isn't it? You want them to find their way and be happy, but you're still not sure what all that entails. Maybe it's up to the next album to tell shed more light, or maybe it's all about the introspection; Separation Sunday certainly seems to prize a deeper look at everything, making Craig Finn and his band more relevant and affecting than ever.

Reviewed by Sarah Peters
A former music editor and staff writer for LAS, Sarah Peters recently disappeared. Perhaps one day she will surface again, who knows.

See other reviews by Sarah Peters



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