Awake-y Breaky Heart

Three emotional releases embrace the theme of resurrection.

By J. Edward Keyes
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted May. 25, 2005

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The Hold Steady
Separation Sunday

The Woods
Sub Pop

Epic Soundtracks
Good Things
DBK Works


In the first week of this month, at a nursing home in New York, firefighter Donald Herbert opened his eyes after a decade in a coma and asked to speak to his wife. The medics and the media were appropriately floored; Herbert's lucidity and recall were spot-on, as if he'd been asleep only a few hours.

The concept of "resurrection" has held a special kind of sway over our culture for centuries now. Joseph Campbell, in a PBS interview that would live in infamy, generated tidal waves of ire when he dismissed the resurrection of Christ as a "clown act."

Even metaphorical resurrections-from the reformed addict to the late-career comeback-earn automatic merit simply because they carry the vague scent of the miraculous.

Resurrections figure prominently in three new releases this month, but nowhere more explicitly than on Separation Sunday, the superb sophomore effort from New York outfit the Hold Steady.

A clown act in two small parts, Sunday tells the one about a Minneapolis drifter named Holly who escapes life by finding drugs, then escapes drugs by finding God. Set against a backdrop of bar rock and barre chords, the story merges the compassion of Raymond Carver with the determinism of Nathaniel West.

The band has grown more bruised and belligerent in the year since its debut, and Sunday's brawny quoting of Boston and Bachman-Turner Overdrive feels more natural and more indomitable. There's a reach and a hunger to the music here that its predecessor only hinted at: the hard clomp of "Cattle and the Creeping Things" and the white-Camaro riffing that powers "Stevie Nix" raises both pumping fists and pimply gooseflesh.

But the record's real animus comes from frontman Craig Finn. Possessing a voice that's part carnival barker, part auto mechanic, Finn is a testament to what can be done with no range and buckets of conviction.

It doesn't hurt that his verse is unfailingly inspired. Smart without being a smartass and funny without being clever, Finn figures out the parallels and symmetries inherent in language, and plays them for maximum effect.

His nurses make jokes about "the ER being like an after-bar," and when Holly's spiritual resurrection finally hits, she's baptized with nitrous oxide so she can be "high as hell and born again."

And in the blistering 10th Avenue freeze-out that is "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night," he even provides his own self-review: "We gather our gospels from gossip ... then declare them the truth/ We salvage our sermons from message boards and scene reports/ We come on to the youth/ We try out new testaments on the guys sitting next to us in bars with bars on their windows / And even if you don't get converted tonight/ You gotta admit, the band's pretty tight."

A less literal resurrection can be found on the new Sleater-Kinney record The Woods, which is not only the second-best record of the band's career, but also one of the best rock records of the year.

On their last two outings, the Olympia, Wash., trio seemed to be slipping toward a figurative but no less dangerous sort of death: a quiet, unremarkable consistency. 2002's One Beat was a little too effortless, the sound of a band that knew the angles inside out and were simply running on their own momentum.

By contrast, The Woods is raw and ragged and primal-a big swaggering beast whose growling inner energy threatens at times to run away with it. There has been scattered chatter about how "noisy" The Woods is, but what people mean when they say "noisy" is that the guitars are mixed really loud and the vocals are kept really clean.

The stark disparity between those two creates the illusion of intense volume, and makes the whole record sound like it's playing through blown speakers. It's a great trick, and it adds to the record's mountainous kinetic energy.

Opening track "The Fox" kicks off with a walloping riff, and crests with Corin Tucker bellowing the words "Land ho!" over a ricocheting drum pattern. From there on out it's pure nerve and charisma-the sound of a band unafraid of playing loose and sloppy and loud.

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