Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The Hold Steady: Stay Positive

By: David Schultz

Despite the fact they are old enough to be the creepy old guys at many of the events they sing about, there are no better chroniclers of the hormonally-charged, inebriated follies of adolescence than The Hold Steady. Their current album, Stay Positive, is the latest chapter in the band’s ever-evolving saga of exquisitely told stories romanticizing the antics and misadventures that befall the young, drunk and stupid. Carried by a fine ear for arena rock guitar riffs and lead singer Craig Finn's dry wit and sardonic vocals, The Hold Steady, with their boozy bar-band swagger, have transcended hip. They accomplish the ultimate feat in music: listening to them makes you feel young again.

A masterful lyricist, Finn populates his songs with impulsive teenagers who suffer at the hands of their own impetuousness as well as poor decisions typically motivated by drugs or alcohol. Like a novelist, Finn brings back characters and themes from past albums, girls are still going to go with whoever’s going to them the highest, there will always be consequences – good or bad – to getting loaded and someone always seems to be on their way to or from Ybor City.

Finn’s colorful style customarily draws comparisons to the early work of Bruce Springsteen but for as much of a debt that Stay Positive owes to The Boss’ idiosyncratic style of storytelling, it also writes an IOU to Journey and Peter Frampton. Giving life to arena rock by reinventing and reinvigorating many of rock and roll's familiar clich├ęs, Franz Nicolay has an uncanny knack for finding the perfect spot to insert his keyboards and even though Tad Kubler and Finn’s guitar work isn’t going to conjure up images of guitar heroes, they’ve mastered the art of the soul-grabbing riff. They’ve also mastered how to structure an album. After the relatively restrained “Two Crosses,” the title track simply leaps out of the speakers.

On Separation Sunday and Boys And Girls In America, the Steady told their stories with a wizened, non-judgmental point of view. On Stay Positive, they haven’t become preachy but they now deal with some of the consequences of careless decisions. In “Sequestered In Memphis,” a feisty date who in bar light, looks all right but in day light, looks desperate, produces a gloriously raucous sing along about subpoenas when the date results in some form of litigation, in “One For The Cutters,” the lawyers do the talking for a girl who resorts to hanging out with the townies and in namechecking John Cassavetes, we learn that for some reason the actress sometimes gets slapped.

Along with the new My Morning Jacket album, the music literati (or uptight snobs as others may call them) have been eagerly awaiting the release of Stay Positive for many months. Anyone worried that the increased attention would affect the band’s vision or style need not worry; Stay Positive is a worthy entry into The Hold Steady canon.

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Grace Potter Rocking The Gear circa 2006!