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The Hold Steady
Boys And Girls In America
Vagrant Records

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 that.

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 protagonist.

"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.

-Gareth Bowles

Track Listing:
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
9. Citrus
10. Chillout Tent
11. South Town Girls

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