Sound — 8
"Separation Sunday" is The Hold Steady's second album, and though it is not their best, it provides a firm foundation for their later, more successful efforts. Distinctively, The Hold Steady's sound is marked by frontman Craig Finn's half-sung, half spoken vocal approach. Whilst I do enjoy his vocals and the way they convey his excellent stories, this can get grating and even tiring at times; this is a sound for an attentive and patient listener. However, the music itself never fails to impress. "Separation Sunday" is packed with some of Tad Kubler's finest riffs. From the bluesy "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night" to the simple yet excellent "Banging Camp" Kubler showcases a range of his talents which compliment the often seedy vocals perfectly. The guitars though are well supported by some monster basslines and frequently quirky drumming, very unique to this band. But you could not talk about The Hold Steady without mentioning the genius that is Franz Nicolay. Mostly on keys here, Nicolay takes the band to a new level at times with little flourishes of brilliance which are sorely missed in 2010's "Heaven Is Whenever". Overall, The Hold Steady's sound could be summed up as straight-up Rock n' roll, the type that is almost entirely absent from the mainstream. As such, The Hold Steady have been described as the "world's best bar band", which to me is no mean feat.
Lyrics — 10
The album opens with Craig Finn's unique vocals alone at the start of "Hornets! Hornets!". Whilst this initially seemed strange to me, viewing the wider context of the album, this is an ingenious move, allowing the listener to really focus on the message that echoes throughout the 11 tracks; "She said always remember never to trust me; she said that the first night that she met me. She said there's gonna come a time when I'm gonna have to go with whoever's gonna get me the highest." Indeed, those lyrics are reframed and referenced in other Hold Steady tracks, most notably 2008's "Stay Positive". Not only is Finn's storytelling witty, vibrant and engaging throughout this, and all of his albums, it is also rewarding. If you can keep up with the story of Hollie and her acquaintances, you feel a sense of identity with the band and the characters when they reappear, or when you recognise previous lyrics. When Finn inevitably kills off Hollie, I would not put it past some loyal listeners to need counselling to get over it.
Overall Impression — 7
Despite the lyrical excellence and unique sound, there is something fundamentally, yet inexplicably flawed about "Separation Sunday". Don't get me wrong, this is a fine album, and one well worth buying, but it just seems to lack the consistency and tenacity of other Hold Steady albums. Though "Hornets! Hornets!" and "How A Resurrection Really Feels" are brilliant in their own rights, "Your Little Hoodrat Friend", "Banging Camp" and "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night" are the only tracks here which really pack a punch. Regardless, I remain generally impressed with The Hold Steady's sound, and back in 2005 this was album with real promise. The songs just have that classic rock n'roll feel to them; no matter how old you are, this a band your dad will love. But if you're after a masterpiece, I'd look at some of the band's other efforts.