Stereo Sanctity Album of the Week
(July 13 - 19, 2008)
The Hold Steady have always struck me as one of indie rock's most unlikely success stories. Playing a brand of not-so-popular-among-the-underground rock music, that being classic rock, coupled with a frontman who doesn't sing so much as speak his vividly detailed lyrics, seems to equal fringe acceptance at best. The now New York-based Hold Steady have managed to overcome their quirks through relentless recording and touring, connecting with a large, diverse audiences by sheer force of will and ridiculously fun, beer-in-the-air live shows.
Defying their age (most members are now in their mid-to-late 30s), the band play with the conviction of a band half their age, and frontman Craig Finn's endless parade of youth oriented, all-encompassing lyrical spew certainly helps attract a wide swath of listeners, from hipsters to middle-aged business men. They've been on a startlingly upward trajectory over the last 4 years, culminating in 2006s epic Boys and Girls in America, one of the decade's most impressive rock records. For their follow-up, The Hold Steady have wisely stayed within their wheelhouse, subtly expanding their musical palette and padding the guest list (Dinosaur Jr's J. Mascis and Drive-By Truckers Patterson Hood both make appearances) while thankfully hewing close to what makes the band great in the first place: drunken, fist-pumping anthems and aching, sweat drenched ballads.
Stay Positive, the band's fourth record, is their most direct and confident to date. Despite the growth shown between each of their subsequent albums, they've never sounded like anyone but the Hold Steady, and the unlikely sonic additions to Stay Positive (harpsichord, banjo etc.) do little to distract from the headlong rush the band excels at. Considering this is the most aggressive rock record the band has recorded to date, those Replacements and Husker Du comparisons seem even more applicable (especially on opener "Constructive Summer" and the title track), yet the major signpost for the Hold Steady will always be Bruce Springsteen. Although the themes presented on Stay Positive are Finn's darkest to date, that everyman attitude and rock n' roll-can-save-the-world philosophy of the Boss has seeped into every musical pore of the band at this point, making this record no less palatable (in fact, it's probably more accessible) to newbies than die-hards.
Your ears perk up to the familiar music of the Hold Steady, but you stick around for the lyrics, and these guys are still the most profound bar band to ever walk the earth. Finn's lyrics still read better than half the novels at my local library, and Stay Positive has more lyrical ear worms and explosive mantras than he's ever managed before. Once again, the Hold Steady's world is an insular one, as Finn frequently references his past work while rehashing many lyrical concerns regarding (but not limited to) drugs, drinking and religion. As mentioned above, the Hold Steady are old by indie rock standards, and Stay Positive is, finally, their don't-look-back-in-anger record, a ten song set reliving past triumphs and failures, yet with the confidence and perseverance to look to the future for hope.
Finn's teenage artistic influences are repeatably referenced here; everyone from Iggy Pop to Joe Strummer to 7 Seconds to Led Zeppelin are integrated into his sometimes painfully detailed diatribes. "Slapped Actress", the brilliant final track, sees Finn using Opening Night director John Cassavetes and his two stars, Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara, as lyrical jump off points to encapsulate Stay Positive's myriad themes, and Finn's final declaration of "Man, we make our own movies!", is as apt a closing statement as featured on any Hold Steady record yet. The Hold Steady have built a career on widescreen dramas of youth gone awry, and the appropriately titled Stay Positive - a record filled equally with tearful recollections and tales of empowering hope - presents the aging process not as an inevitable downturn, but as an opportunity for lasting memories and new experiences.
Highlights: "Constructive Summer", "Sequestered in Memphis", "Navy Sheets", "Stay Positive", "Joke About Jamaica", "Slapped Actress"
"Sequestered in Memphis"