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Every few years, an album comes along from a relatively unknown band that leaves music critics grasping for adjectives and the music-buying public scratching their heads, wondering what the big deal is.

Such is the case with The Hold Steady, a Brooklyn band led by Minnesota transplant Craig Finn that found its brilliant 2006 album, "Boys and Girls in America," sitting at or near the top of critics' year-end lists at Rolling Stone, Pitchfork, The Onion, Blender, Billboard, Spin and Alternative Press, among others.

A listen to "Boys and Girls" makes it clear why the album is candy to sweet-toothed critics. Finn's narratives, often dealing with boozing, drugging and loving among characters in the Midwest, are among the most evocative in recent memory. And the band backing him - keyboardist Franz Nicolay, guitarist Tab Kubler, bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake - kicks up a classic-rock ruckus melding Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band with some slippery rock la The Replacements and a touch of twang courtesy of The Band.

Even with a dossier full of adoring press, The Hold Steady remains a scuffling indie band. Finding its music on commercial radio is virtually impossible, and while you can find some videos from the band on YouTube, you'll be hard-pressed to find them on MTV or Fuse. That's not a problem, keyboardist Nicolay pointed out in a recent interview, since the band doesn't expect critical praise to lead to full-blown rock stardom.

"You put a record out there and you can pretty much find a positive review of it somewhere," Nicolay said. "That's always a good ego boost and a nice affirmation. But at the end of the day, if people aren't going out to the shows, it's just sort of an empty cry in the indie-rock echo chamber."

All the media attention has helped draw more fans to the band's gigs, though. And the shows have earned the sort of reputation for drunken revelry that led Finn to encourage fans to take work off the next day after a Hold Steady concert. Nicolay has noticed the growing Hold Steady following from his spot behind the keyboards onstage.

"One of the great things about this band is that every time we go out, you can see a noticeable increase in the crowd," Nicolay said. "San Diego is a place I always think of like that, where we've played the same place every time we've been there. The first time, there was maybe 40 people. The next time, there was 150, and the next was 300."

For Nicolay, the band's growing fan base makes sense due to the musical growth on "Boys and Girls in America." He joined just six weeks before the band hit the studio to record 2005's "Separation Sunday" - a fine album in its own right - created somewhat on the fly. "Boys and Girls in America" was the first time the entire band was in on creating the arrangements to Finn's story-songs, and it shows.

"For the first time we really integrated the vocals and the music in a way that the first two records hadn't really successfully done," Nicolay said. "People always responded to Craig's lyrics, but there was an aspect on the first two records of him just kind of doing his thing over the top of whatever was going on. This one, with the addition of the piano to the writing process, there was more room for the melodic elements. The backing vocals were a similar thing."

Wednesday marks The Hold Steady's first trip to Utah, and while Nicolay doesn't know what to expect, he acknowledges that some of the band's best shows have been in other "flyover" towns such as Iowa City or Lancaster, Pa.

"I'm looking for an excitable crowd," Nicolay said. "It's always exciting to play with the band, but we've been playing these songs thousands of times between writing them, recording them and touring. In a lot of ways, I'm looking to the crowd to give me a little kick in the ass. It's always kind of a bummer when you get some of these rapt indie-rock crowds where you can hear all the whispers on the stage between every song.

"When the band is having a better time than the crowd, and there's way more of them than of us, then something's gone wrong with the equation."

First visit

* THE HOLD STEADY, with Heartless Bastards opening, plays Wednesday at 9 p.m. at The Urban Lounge, 241 S. 500 East, Salt Lake City. Tickets are $13 at 24tix.com, SmithsTix outlets and the door.

Steady outpouring of fine lyrics

The Hold Steady's Craig Finn has been hailed far and wide as indie-rock's latest and best gutter-poet, and there are lines dotting the songs on "Boys and Girls in America" that certainly back that up. Some of Finn's best lines:

"I see Judas in the hard eyes of the boys working the corners. I feel Jesus in the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers." - from "Citrus"

"She was a really good kisser and she wasn't all that strict of a Christian. She was a damn good dancer but she wasn't all that great of a girlfriend."

- from "Stuck Between Stations"

"How am I supposed to know if you're high if you won't let me touch you? How am I supposed to know if you're high if you won't even dance?"

- from "Chips Ahoy!"

"I've been straight since the Cinco de Mayo. Before that I was blotto, I was blacked out, I was cracked out."

- from "Hot Soft Light" For clips of songs from The Hold Steady's "Boys and Girls in America," visit http://www.sltrib.com/themix.