Lifter Puller has generally been remembered merely as the band Craig Finn and Tad Kubler were in before they formed The Hold Steady. But in reality, the group was its own unique, thrilling entity, playing overtly fictional story-songs similar to those Finn grew more famed for, with a wirier, new-wavier sound. Now the band’s catalog is getting the reassessment it deserves: All its albums except its self-titled debut are being re-released with bonus tracks, and they’re abetted with a superb rarities collection, Slips Backwards.
Lifter Puller (1996) introduced Finn’s tongue-twisting lyrical style and bad-parties subject matter, particularly on “Star Wars Hips” and “Double Straps.” But too often, it’s fairly ordinary mid-’90s college rock of the despairing sort. (“Love is just keeping a tab / Love is just sharing a cab,” he moans on “Bruce Bender.”) Half Dead And Dynamite (1997) toned up the songwriting, with the band matching Finn’s raucous lyrics on the swaggering opener “To Live And Die In LBI” and “The Gin And The Sour Defeat”: “There’s always dudes talking shit at the bar / There’s always chicks throwing up in my car.” The six-song The Entertainments And Arts EP (1998) condenses Half Dead’s nervy roar and ups the handclaps and cheesy-synth quotient.
Even The Hold Steady hasn’t made anything quite like 2000’s Fiestas + Fiascos, an album-length narrative about a group of druggy nightlifers. Finn’s endlessly unwinding wordplay invites, and stands up to, any number of listens. Lifter Puller’s breakup means that the album never got a real follow-up, but the singles and rarities on Slips Backwards offer a surprisingly coherent substitute. The revelation is a superior B-side version of Half Dead’s “Nassau Coliseum,” which nightmarishly details both the narrator’s breakup and a Long Island Grateful Dead show that ends in police brutality. Of course—Lifter Puller was always full of surprises.