The Hold Steady plays to its strengths

The Hold Steady, once a quintet, is holding steady at four members now: Craig Finn, left, Galen Polivka, Tad Kubler and Bobby Drake.
The Hold Steady, once a quintet, is holding steady at four members now: Craig Finn, left, Galen Polivka, Tad Kubler and Bobby Drake.

Usually, when a pioneering popular music force is asked to come clean about his musical heroes, the answer becomes a bit of a balk.

Maybe he prefers not to let on to the artistic tricks he might have picked up from them. Maybe he doesn't want to be pigeonholed stylistically by the admission. Maybe he doesn't know who his heroes are.

Craig Finn, vocalist, lyricist and co- guitarist for the pop-savvy Brooklyn, N.Y., rock troupe The Hold Steady, doesn't subscribe to any of that. He's proud to claim The Replacements as the band that forever changed the course of his rock 'n' roll journey.

Like The Replacements, Finn, 39, hails from Minneapolis. And like the band, he doesn't fit the glammed-up stereotype of a rock-band frontman. And like chief Replacement Paul Westerberg, his songs are alert, literate and ferociously rocking yet full of pure pop accessibility.

"Before The Replacements, I didn't even know I could be in a rock band," Finn said. "I didn't know that dudes who looked like me or like the people in my neighborhood could be in a band. I thought they all had to be Steven Tyler descending from some rock mountain. The Replacements were these charming but very believable guys playing music that was really poignant and exciting and smart. And kind of wild."

Poignant, exciting, smart and kind of wild — those are integral ingredients of what has distinguished The Hold Steady's music over the course of five albums. Buzz on an international level kicked in for the band after the release of the 2008 album Think Positive. That's also when touring alliances with the Dave Matthews Band, Counting Crows (which Finn often echoes in his more overtly poppish moments), Drive-By Truckers and Kings of Leon noticeably raised The Hold Steady's already hearty performance profile.

But at the heart of The Hold Steady are Finn's lyrics. Actually, they're more like full cinematic stories with characters ranging from the hapless to the heartbroken to the just plain boozed. Finn's sense of narrative has been regularly compared to the writing of such major leaguers as Bruce Springsteen. That's certainly true on the band's newest album, Heaven Is Whenever. Though the band was pared down to a quartet with the departure of founding keyboardist Franz Nicolay, Heaven offers a more varied and expansive sound for Finn's songs to move about in.

"I think we're all just getting better at staying out of each other's way," Finn said with a laugh. "Obviously, storytelling is a big part of what I want to do vocally. So every time we make a record, we're always hoping to evolve and play to those strengths. This album is but one example of that.

"We were already looking for a little more space in the music. Franz was an incredible musician who could play just about any instrument. But sometimes, we couldn't resist the opportunity to fill up every available space within the music. So we wanted to make these new songs a little more wide open."

Among the fine examples of such song design on Heaven Is Whenever is Barely Breathing, a composition lyrically inspired by punkish bands Finn knew in his youth that triggered violent turns from their audience. But quirky twists abound. In terms of the story, the band Finn sings about dissolves and re-forms as promoters of the Hare Krishna movement. Musically, the song's huge anthemic hooks take a detour into swing with colors of brass and clarinet.

"The idea of a band converting people to the Hare Krishnas seemed like such a strange and weird thing. At 38, when I wrote the song, it just seemed too ridiculous to even be in a song.

"But this is a huge part of my lyric writing. It involves looking back to when I was younger and trying to understand what was important and unusual about these situations. I've been a New Yorker now for 10 years. But the stories in my songs are all about Minneapolis. It just took moving to Brooklyn to appreciate what was unique and special about living in Minneapolis. Sometimes you need that distance as you look back."