Sunday, July 20, 2008

The Hold Steady: "Stay Positive" - Review

I knew The Hold Steady had finally won me over with Stay Positive on about my fifth listening. Though there were still layers of lyrics and stories to pick through, the record already felt like an old pair of Chuck Taylors, comfortable and very familiar, but designed to kick someone's ass.

My previous problem with The Hold Steady can be blamed on Critic's Shorthand-- you know, "this band sounds like __________, with a bit of ________." Record reviews for The Hold Steady, from earlier releases right through last year's Boys and Girls in America, placed Craig Finn and his band directly on E Street. I'm no prude, but the previous releases were a little too full of drugs, booze, and parties gone bad. It felt a little gimmicky after repeated listenings. As a thirty-year-plus fan of The Boss, I tried and I tried, but I never heard it. Sure, they both have sweeping piano lines over bridges of their songs, but that's where the similarities begin and end.

Look, this girl I dug in 6th grade actually had a little mustache, but she never made me think of Burt Reynolds.

So I put away the Hold Steady, suffering the scorn of many trusted sources, distancing myself from the Bruce references, and I forgot about the Hold Steady . . . until last week's release of Stay Positive, an absolutely blistering set of good old American Rock and Roll. Interestingly, for such a highly-anticipated (and presumably well-funded) record, Stay Positive suffers from some of the worst production/mastering I have heard. It may be the only rock release in recent memory that actually sounds worse on headphones than in the car, and I'm beginning to realize that may be by design. Sure, Stay Positive is art . . . it's gushing with great stories . . . but it's art made to be played at 11, mullet out, T-tops off the Camaro.

From the opening track, "Constructive Summer," Stay Positive serves up throw-up-the-horns rock and roll that demands singing along. In fact, "Constructive Summer," with its refrain, "We're gonna build something this summer," may just be this Summer's unofficial anthem.

Throughout Stay Positive, Finn and company drop 70's and 80's rock references, lyrical and musical, like bait for aging iPod owners. Whether conjuring up Iggy Pop in words ("Constructive Summer") or the Cars and Van Halen in sounds (the spiraling keyboards and guitar crunch of "Navy Sheets"), Finn has cred in this department-- he's just weeks from his 37th birthday.

Underneath the rock din, Finn is, at essence, a very literate storyteller. "Sequestered in Memphis," a less-than-clear story of a bargirl encounter gone bad, finds him re-telling a story that one suspects might be his own. In the hero's responses to a police grilling, Finn finds the biggest hooks of the entire record-- "In barlight, she looked all right, in daylight, she looked desperate. That's all right, I was desperate too, I'm getting pretty sick of this interview. (Subpoenaed in Texas, sequestered in Memphis)." We have no idea what happened to the poor girl, but we can't help but sing along.

Despite the hooks (and the title), the stories and songs on the record are often dark. In "One for the Cutters," a college girl (presumably in Bloomington, Indiana), bored of her college friends, ventures out to the quarries to party with the "townies." Avoiding the spoiler, let's just say that this song may single-handedly scare this Bloomingtonite father of two girls into keeping them in the house after dark well past their twenty-first birthdays.

The only misstep on Stay Positive is "Joke About Jamaica," a song (over-stuffed) with Zep references. Though every rock and roller over forty remembers the friends who couldn't pronounce "D'Yer Maker," because they didn't get it, the remaining references . . . Houses of the Holy, Trampled Under Foot, etc. are numerous, heavy-handed, and eventually render an otherwise good song just . . . Zo-So. (Ugh.)

And so, my apologies for what I may have said about The Hold Steady. I get it. I love it. But Bruce is the complement, not the analog. Bruce and Craig, they're in the same room, but they're not friends. Bruce is Breakfast Club wrestling champ Andy Clark-- successful, polished, and sexy, but also troubled and sometimes annoyingly self-aware. Craig Finn, of course, is John Bender-- dope-smoking, doughy and unloved, casting stones from the outside. But he knows exactly what he's doing, and we laugh at every one of his jokes, no matter how pointed or mean-spirited.

Stay Positive is anything but positive, but it is mature. Like Jeff Tweedy, maimed by rock and roll, music is also Craig Finn's savior. In opening the song (and the record), he proclaims "Our Psalms are sing-along songs." In the title track, he again shouts "the sing-along songs will be our scriptures." Any record that includes a song ("Constructive Summer") dropping both Joe Strummer (this blog's icon, a personal hero, and the patron saint of those of us who never gave up on the power of rock and roll) and a little buddhist wisdom is a must-have: "Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer, I think he might have been our only decent teacher. Getting older makes it harder to remember-- we are our only saviors."

Indeed, Mr. Finn. I hope you come around these parts soon, so I can apologize in person.

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