If Craig Finn weren't such a shouter, the members of The Hold Steady might be real rock stars instead of just performance artists in rock-star clothes. But that's part of what makes the band so distinctive—guitarist Tad Kubler pounds out head-thumping classic-rock riffs while Finn bellows like an overcranked art student, reading lyrics from some barroom poet's police statement. On The Hold Steady's second album, Separation Sunday, the band threads together the era-spanning street-punk romanticism of Bruce Springsteen's The Wild, The Innocent & The E Street Shuffle and Hüsker Dü's Zen Arcade. Finn and Kubler rip out Joe Walsh power chords on the album opener "Hornets! Hornets!" and a Thin Lizzy dual-guitar coda on "Stevie Nix," and when Finn hollers, "tramps like us… we like tramps," he hits all the harmonic notes of tribute and critique. The rhythm section balances out Finn's volubility by shifting easily from hammer to pillow, providing the modulation that the lead singer lacks by design.
On the first Hold Steady record, last year's Almost Killed Me, Finn worked the room at a rowdy Saturday-night kegger, overhearing improbable stories and telling a few lies of his own. Separation Sunday could be taking place the next day, as the partygoers with nowhere to go hang out in a skate park and talk about God. It's not a full-blown concept album, though Separation Sunday hangs together better than Green Day's overrated punk opera American Idiot, and has more to say about young Americans. Finn's recurring characters have names like "Hallelujah" and "Charlemagne," and they insult each other with hip-hop slang like "hood-rat" as they ramble on about the drugs and bands that get them "high as hell." They pretend not to care about each other, and the only religion they need gets dispensed from nightclub stages, not pulpits.
Separation Sunday works as a whole, building to a finale where Hallelujah leaves Penetration Park and stumbles into a church to tell the priest and parishioners "How A Resurrection Really Feels." Mostly though, The Hold Steady is the ideal iPod band. Finn's abrasive voice sounds legitimately exciting in four-minute bursts, and his best put-down lines are more corrosive. Finn has a lot to say about metaphorical death and rebirth throughout Separation Sunday, and he preaches the gospel of real rock 'n' roll, grunting, "At least in dying you don't have to deal with new wave for a second time." Amen, brother.