Nice Nice Guys Finish Last


At the beginning of 1995, City Pages, the Minneapolis-St. Paul weekly not yet affiliated with the Voice, held a mini-version of Pazz & Jop with all local critics, and I will never forget the top two albums. The winner was Hole’s Live Through This—no surprise there—but the runner-up was a different story: G. Love & Special Sauce, the self-titled debut album of a mush-mouthed Philadelphian rhyming poorly over junkyard grooves that Fat Albert and the Cosby Kids would’ve tossed in the dumpster. Surely you remember “Cold Beverage”? “Blues Music”? And, let us not forget, “Baby’s Got Sauce”? As Mr. Love himself would put it, “Aw, yeeeeaaaah.”

I was almost 20 when that poll came out, and it was a revelation. For the first time I can remember, I looked around my hometown and had the sense that something—not even anything important, just something—could “only happen here.” (Jesse Ventura was, at that point, merely the mayor of Brooklyn Park.) The way Minneapolitan alt-rockers and hipsters responded to G. Love, not to mention Soul Coughing and Beck, all of whom released debut albums in 1994, you’d have thought we’d invented the concept of smart-aleck white slackers talking fast over oddly funky backdrops—which, if Bob Dylan is any indication, maybe we did. Without getting too deep into the racial politics of it, which marks me as a true Minnesotan if anything does, it’s safe to say that the Twin Cities have always had a major fucking thing for this type of artist. (It’s been estimated that Soul Coughing sold 20 percent of their records in the Cities, which approximately made them, for a time, the Beatles. At the Knitting Factory, I’m not even sure they were ELO.)

Which is one reason I’ve never entirely trusted my response to Lifter Puller, the now defunct Minneapolis indie-rock band. It’s probably unfair to lump motormouth frontman Craig Finn with the above-named artists: Though his band could ride a groove, it usually blocked more than it bumped, resembling a new-wavier Archers of Loaf, alternately cheesy and atmospheric keyboard hooks battling it out with barking guitars. And while his torrential word flow has some hip-hop in it, there’s just as much Elvis Costello, early Springsteen, Mark E. Smith, even Morrissey. But they couldn’t really be as good as I always thought they were—surely I was just another Minneapolitan slacker with a jones for smart-assed motormouths. But the cult that’s grown up around them since they broke up following 2000’s Fiestas + Fiascos tour, has made me reconsider. So did the one-off reunion gig on August 1, when they helped close down Brownies’ rock stage (it became a two-off the following night, thanks to an offer to play a San Francisco wedding).

Soul Coughing’s Mike Doughty might have sold books of verse at shows, but Finn is more of a cross between a hard-boiled detective writer and Thomas Pynchon, chronicling an imaginary demimonde featuring recurring characters like Katrina (“You can call me Special K”), low-level crook the Eye-Patch Guy, and Nightclub Dwight, who runs the Nice Nice, the spot where much of the action takes place. Fiestas is their apotheosis, a perfect 30-minute concept album that ends with the Eye-Patch Guy calling for Dwight’s head before abruptly cutting off. The new Soft Rock, which compiles nearly everything the band recorded that wasn’t on Fiestas, is just as bizarre. Apparently in the interest of keeping the original releases intact, the collection eschews chronology, sandwiching 1997’s Half Dead and Dynamite, Lifter Puller’s second album, between singles, demos, and compilation tracks, while disc two follows 1998’s The Entertainment and Arts EP with their self-titled 1996 debut. For a band that prized narrative flow above all, this is one weird way to proffer a legacy.

Of course, it was probably smarter of them to do it this way: No one would play two discs that open with Lifter Puller, the one time they ever sounded like a generic indie-rock band. Finn sounds uncomfortable singing more straightforward songs like “Mission Viejo,” and the draggy, mumbly, endless “Lazy Eye” sounds like Sebadoh on ‘ludes. It’s only when he starts introducing Fiestas‘ alternate universe on “Double Straps” that he sparks to attention: “These downtown girls are fast and loose/ They’ll work you for a Baby Ruth/And this club is just a kissing booth/And love is just an ego boost.”

As you might have gathered, Finn isn’t a much of a soul-barer; his slow jams tend to be paranoid and accusatory, like Half Dead‘s “Nassau Coliseum,” which climaxes with the priceless “Didn’t think you would dis me/Did you sleep with that hippie?” As befits the author of “Lifter Puller vs. the End of the Evening” (from Fiestas), Finn found himself on Half Dead and Entertainment by losing himself in a crowd. Or as he puts it in Entertainment’s “Sangre de Stephanie,” “We’re Budweiser, we’re Benzedrine/We went down on the smoke machine.”

At Brownies this summer, Lifter Puller were atypically subdued; they were playing on borrowed equipment, disallowing guitarist-keyboardist Steve Barone his usual trick of jumping off an amp stack and landing with his fingers on the right keyboard chord. Bassist Tad Kuebler had to actually play nice instead of nearly breaking his hands on his instrument. A lot of the crowd had traveled to see the show—mostly from Minneapolis, but also Seattle, Boston, Baltimore. But just as many were part of the hometown diaspora, and they shouted along with every word, in true ‘Sota fashion simultaneously stoic and transported. Then Atmosphere’s Slug jumped onstage to join Finn in the chorus of “Math Is Money”—”Twin Cities! They’re ganging up on me! Twin Cities! They’re double-teaming me!”—a good joke, considering that since their demise, Lifter Puller have transcended the confines of local fame. In that instant, past met present. I hoisted my cold beverage in tribute. You can’t go home again, but there’s still no place like it.