Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Album Review: The Hold Steady

The Hold Steady
Stay Positive
NQL Rating: Not quite as good as Boys and Girls in America, but much better than Short Circuit 2.

Despite a scheduled mid-July release date, Stay Positive actually leaked to the parasitic masses on the cusp of Memorial Day weekend which was seemingly appropriate for a band that signifies the spirit of a good, fun American summer. Like Boys and Girls in America before it, the Hold Steady’s fourth full length record starts off with a classic guitar riff leading into a rocker that is certain to kick off their heavy slate of live shows this summer. Although “Constructive Summer” isn’t really indicative of the album as a whole, it’s one of the most complete Hold Steady songs I have heard. With a loud, banging chorus that may or may not have been written by Andrew W.K., Craig Finn guides the listener through a tale of blue collar dreams and summer nights. When he sings “Let this be my annual reminder that we can all be something bigger.” just before a piano solo, anyone who has ever felt stuck or stagnant in life can proudly raise their bar glass to the best current bar band around. But keep those glasses up, because at the end of the song on Finn’s command we’re toasting to Saint Joe Strummer who, as Finn sings, “…might have been our only decent teacher.” Amen to that.

Maintaining the pace of the first track, single “Sequestered in Memphis” has an On the Road-ish theme that we’ve seen from this band before. Someone was causing trouble in Texas, the law catches up to them in Memphis, and somewhere there was a girl mixed in. Another reason why you should always head west. And I don’t want to alarm anyone but it looks like at the end of the song we have a sing-along! Woo-hoo!

“Sequestered in Memphis” isn’t alone as similar themes crop up throughout the album that will make the average Hold Steady fan feel right at home. On “One for the Cutters” a girl resorts to hanging out with the townies when all the regular parties run dry. “Getting nailed against dumpsters behind townie bars” is a lyric only Finn could write and make it sound melodic, romantic, and heartbreaking. This is the first track from Stay Positive where the band muscially steers in a bit different direction from past material…most evidenced by someone rocking a pretty serious harpsichord. Same is true with the next track “Navy Sheets” where a synthesizer dominates the landscape of the song. And I don’t want to give away the song’s message, but I’d be very cautious about sleeping on any navy sheets for the time being.

The band switches gears on “Lord, I’m Discouraged” which sounds both like a southern rock anthem and an R&B confessional. Finn sings of a girl he’s trying to reach that’s way past arm’s length. Complete with a long, winding guitar solo from Tad Kubler, the song ends with Finn seeking guidance and confessing that his faith is on shaky ground. When he sings “Wont you show me a sign?/Let me know that you’re listening.” he doesn’t seem to be patient enough to wait and heads back into the chorus (“Excuses and half truths and fortified wine”) and ends singing “I know it’s unlikely she’ll ever be mine/So I mostly just pray she don’t die.” Don’t get too depressed, because it’s a great song and before we know it we’re back to rocking on “Yeah Sapphire”. The narrator in the song proclaims over some heavy guitars, “I’m sick and I’m tired and I’m fried and you gotta believe me.” Yeah, well, what else is new? Those that have always loved Finn’s wordplay will probably gravitate towards this song. Those that live in Aberdeen, South Dakota will also gravitate towards this song because I bet it’s not every day your town gets name dropped. In fact, a simple google search suggests this might be a first. Hey, congratulations Aberdeen!

One of the intriguing things about the Hold Steady is how the lyrics have often used Catholicism as a crutch for when things get messy. “Both Crosses” is a quiet, drum-based ballad where it seems the narrator is using Biblical and friends’ names rather interchangeably. I think this song is one of the less memorable tracks on the album, but when Finn sings, “You Catholic girls start much too late.” it’s obvious he didn’t go to my high school. The title track brings back some fist pumping energy with a preemptive bar-like chant of “Wo Ho Ho”. The chorus later in the song of “We gotta stay positive” is simple yet embodies the Hold Steady. They’ve always had a lot of street credibility with every scenester type kid out there, but they maintain this without an ounce of pretension and with a mischievous, if not optimistic, smile on their faces. It’s the message that life is serious, life is draining, but stick with us and you’ll have fun and you’ll be fine.

Track 9 “Magazines” is a nice piece of pop/rock that tells the story of how each day starts off promising but often ends up the same as the night before. When Finn sings, “Magazines and daddy issues. I know you’re pretty pissed/I hope you’ll still let me kiss you.” I’m reminded of an all too common notion of our own selfish desires sometimes overshadowing what’s really important. And is that C.C. DeVille singing on the backup vocals? I think it is! (It’s not.)

Despite a nice guitar solo from Kubler (that’s one thing about Stay Positive, the shorter hooks are replaced with longer guitar solos), I find “Joke About Jamaica” to be the low point of the album. An ode to Led Zeppelin, much like “Citrus” before it, someone utilizes a talkbox solo to the band’s (dis)advantage but that’s okay, it’s just a nice setup for closing track “Slapped Actress”. Unlike too many bands, the Hold Steady has always been cognizant of the importance of going out on a high note. Stay Positive is no different. On “Slapped Actress” they’ve come full circle and find themselves back in trouble and back in Ybor City. The song and album end with a unified chant of “Wo ho, ho-oh, oh-oh” that will again be inviting to the so many fans looking to sing along with them this summer. And that’s one thing that has always been interesting about this band. The wall between them and their fans is much more blurry than that of most band/fan relationships. I’ve said many times before, the Hold Steady has always been one big party and everyone is invited. I stand by that.

I enjoy this album immensely, but to me it is still (slightly) inferior to those that came before it. I think all these "near-perfect" reviews (I have read a couple) may be a product of many music reviewers who were a little late to the party and are trying to make up for lost time. That said, you are all greeted with open arms, and for my money, it doesn't get much better than "Constructive Summer" and "Lord, I'm Discouraged" as far as Hold Steady songs are concerned. The album as a whole didn’t reach out and shake my entire rock foundation and beg to be played every day as their predecessors did. I heard the same sentiments from a lot of friends after they spent some time with the album. But that’s because we’re old friends with this band by now. Old friends don’t blow you away, but they’re dependable, they’re reliable, and they’re consistently good. And so is Stay Positive.


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