This third album from Brooklyn-via Minneapolis band The Hold
Steady was eagerly awaited, the HS being easily one of best
bands I've discovered in the last year or two. They're a weirdly
unfashionable lot, combining an undisguised love of 70's rock
with leader Craig Finn's genius descriptions of teenage
lust, drugs, booze and various shady lowlifes.
The HS are usually described as "indie rock for classic
rock fans" - they certainly take their musical cues from
Thin Lizzy, AC/DC and Springsteen, and the
boozy attitude and working-class sympathies come straight from
the likes of The Replacements. But Finn's vivid and poetic
stories remind me a lot of The Pogues in the days when
Shane MacGowan was still the reigning monarch of low-life
fairy tales. Line up this record's "You Can Make Him Like
You" next to an old MacGowan gem like "The Auld Main
Drag" and maybe you'll see what I mean.
The first two HS albums were critical faves, the last one Separation
Sunday, in particular, being a sprawling, epic narrative fuelled
by twin-guitar riffage and Finn's barking, rapid fire delivery
- the latter a turn off for some folks, but well worth enduring.
Boys And Girls In America beefs up the classic rock some more
with tinkling piano, "woah woah" backing vocals and
frequent actual singing from Finn, but doesn't bury the words.
All of the great things that make a Hold Steady record a real
album are still present - characters like Charlemagne and Holly
show up from the previous LPs, appearing in multiple songs to
give the whole thing a narrative flow. The themes that link the
songs are a little looser than the low-rent spiritual travelogue
of Separation Sunday, maybe, but are no less powerful for
Now to the songs. "Stuck Between Stations" roars out
of the gate with an irresistible verse riff and climbing chorus.
One listen to the words indicates that this is no Springsteen-esque
ode to the open road, though; it turns out be an ode to poet and
suicide victim John Berryman. The lyrics to this one (including
the killer chorus, "She was a really good dancer but she
wasn't that great of a girlfriend") have been a bit over-discussed
in other reviews, so I'll concentrate on some of the other gems.
"Party Pit" starts off like a lost track from Born
To Run with tinkling piano and a guitar / bass rumble that
makes you anticipate a giant riff chorus, but veers off into dark
lyrical territory as it describes a young girl out for adventure
who ends up getting "pimped out at the party pit". Here,
Finn manages to make a mundane line like "Gonna walk around
and drink some more" into a soaring, singalong chorus.
"You Can Make Him Like You" is on the surface a story
of how it's much more convenient to drink and drug with other
people, but some of the lines tip the song into genius territory.
"You don't have to go to the right kind of schools, let your
boyfriend go to the right kind of schools/ You can have his old
sweatshirt, you can wear it like it's covering a bruise"
is an incedibly poignant insight into the insecurity of this song's
"Chill Out Tent" is one of the best story songs on
the record, dealing with star-crossed lovers who meet up in the
medical tent at a music fest after independently OD-ing and proceeed
to make out while other folk are passed out all around them. It's
nicely sung, too, with Finn acting as narrator and Elizabeth
Elmore and Dave Pirner (yep, ol' Dave from Soul
Asylum) playing the fateful couple. The song ends in the best
Shakespearean tradition as they never see each other again (too
wasted to get a phone number, huh ?)
All Hold Steady reviews cite Craig Finn, but the rest of the
band have a crucial role in making the lyrics cruise down that
dark freeway. Lead guitarist Tad Kubler (like Finn, an
alumnus of Lifter Puller - check out Soft Rock or
Fiestas Fiascos for evidence that the HS albums didn't
just come out of nowhere) adds the big rock crunch, keyboardist
Franz Nicolay supplies the E-Street style pounding
piano and warm Hammond chords, while bassist Galen Polivka
and drummer Bobby Drake keep up the massive backbeat in
best arena-rock tradition.
With a new deal on Vagrant Records and even a video for the great
single "Chips Ahoy" doing the rounds, this is hopefully
the record that will give The Hold Steady the huge audience they
deserve. Give this one a spin; if you're at all intrigued, pick
up the other albums Almost Killed Me and Separation
Sunday, too. Also, check out one of the high energy live shows
if you can - apart from being one of the best live experiences
you're likely to have this year, it's a great way to put some
well deserved dollars in the band's pockets.
1. Stuck Between Stations
2. Chips Ahoy
3. Hot Soft Light
4. Same Kooks
5. First Night
6. Party Pit
7. You Can Make Him Like You
8. Massive Nights
10. Chillout Tent
11. South Town Girls
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