The club scene is a whole lot different now than it was at the turn of the millennium, especially when you consider that one year later The Strokes would flood its headquarters (the Lower East Side) with codeine and browbeaten male ennui.
And in a weird way, Craig Finn has straddled the millennial angst of the pre and post Strokes rock club world. His post-Is This It? life has afforded him (rightly) more success in The Hold Steady, the second greatest American rock band playing music today (Wilco, if you must know). His notoriety as Dickens-come-Springsteen has him as a pseudo-heroic literary figure—hell, he was tapped to write the script of the seminal Chuck Klosterman travelogue Killing Yourself to Live. All this to say that what he has created in this far more safe, blandly hedonistic rock world is profound, and eminently transcendent.
But let’s not forget where Finn was when the ball dropped on a New Rock Era—namely, in the ashes of a fake bar and the violent, junky denizens who make their meager living dripping wet and calling each other fake names. This, of course, is the world of Fiestas & Fiascos, the oft-forgotten diamond of Twin Cities new wave post-punks Lifter Puller, Finn and then bassist Tad Kubler’s first band together. After two albums of acceptably dour half-cocked concept riffage, Finn and company penned what might most accurately be described as a Northern Rock Opera, a tale as knotty and expansive as Ulysses, only at one tenth the length. Fiestas only sticks around for half an hour, yet Finn packs his abrasive shout full of manhunts, three burnout women, a burning club and, of course, shit tons of drugs.
From ketamine to heroin to roofies, Fiestas is certifiably dark, an account of a rock scene infested with infection (to cop a later Finn line), strung out on ravers and drugs, sputtering along waiting for somebody to save it.
But Lifter Puller were nobody’s saviors. The Hold Steady would be more hopeful, especially in this day and age, but in the moment Finn was most concerned with cataloguing a time and place that was too often generalized by lip rings and ecstasy. In short, blood-gushing spurts came the tales of actual people—well fake people living actually. There was Night Club Dwight, the crackhead who won the bar (the Nice, Nice) playing dice, then proceeded to turn it into a festering hole to the people he owed money to, and a fantastic party to those who frequented it. Or Katrina, the girl who got so bent out on ketamine that people just started calling her K. Even Juanita, the longstanding idol of the scene who, at the behest of the sniveling cigarette smoking man of the Lifter Puller world The Guy With the Eye Patch, burns the Nice, Nice to the ground in Finn’s grand finale with his first band.
The concept album rarely works because it too often descends into a bloated search for meaning. Because artists are rarely as voracious consumers as their listeners, the prism with which they view non-concept based songs is one of simple physics. The concept, then, is an attempt to transcend the basic mathematics of songwriting and become something of a filmmaker. Again, this rarely works, and Fiestas & Fiascos is the exception proving the rule. Succinct and unrelenting, Kubler’s perfect rhythm section underscores what truth Finn found—meaning is found when telling the story, not the other way around. Maybe Craig Finn didn’t set out to paint the portrait of the pre-Strokes American bar scene, but what he ended up with was as good an example of that as has ever been put to tape. Brutal, unforgiving and ultimately hopeless, Fiestas & Fiascos stands as a black light in a white light world, reminding everybody that really, things aren’t so clean once you start digging.
Lifter Puller – Fiestas & Fiascos tracklist:
- “Lonely in a Limosine”
- “Candy’s Room”
- “Space Humpin’ $19.99”
- “Lake Street is for Lovers”
- “Nice, Nice”
- “Katrina and the K-Hole”
- “Cruised and Accused of Cruising”
- “Touch My Stuff”
- “Lie Down on Landsdowne”
- “Lifter Puller vs. the End of the Evening”
- “The Flex and the Buff Resuit”