Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Music Review: The Hold Steady - Stay Positive

The Hold Steady’s previous album, Boys and Girls in America, was an exhilarating, emotional, and occasionally sobering mix of songs about drinking, drugs, and other wholesome activities. Its characters seemed to enjoy getting their kicks and fixes in the moment, but remained acutely aware that the morning after wouldn’t be so sweet. Its most obvious influences were impeccable – a holy triumvirate of the Replacements, Husker Du, and E-Street Band-era Bruce Springsteen came to mind for various reviewers – yet the album somehow managed to incorporate those influences without sounding like a cheap knockoff.

The band’s latest album, Stay Positive, wears these influences with pride once again, perhaps a little too much so for some fans and critics. Still, it’s not accurate to dismiss the band’s latest effort as unoriginal or blandly derivative. Despite what one witty critic recently wrote, lead singer Craig Finn isn’t the offspring of Springsteen and Bob Mould. The band brings an organic, traditional rock sound, free of needless background music and manufactured noise, and an intensity to both their albums and live performances that do separate them from the glut of indie bands.

Stay Positive is a good album, even if it doesn’t quite match up to either Boys and Girls or their earlier album Separation Sunday. The songs vary from aggressive, pseudo-macho anthems (macho for indie standards, at least) like “Constructive Summer” and “Sequestered in Memphis,” to ballads like “Lord, I’m Discouraged.”

Although the vocals are a bit more restrained and the instrumentation a tad more polished, Finn still talk-sings in his distinctive voice and the band still makes a decent amount of racket. In an album setting, the band clearly knows how they want their music to sound; it’s textured and layered without being oversaturated or suffering from a cold production.

The songs explore many of the same themes as Boys and Girls and Separation Sunday. Like those two albums, Finn’s characters still invariably always seem to be getting older at breakneck speed, aided by drugs, booze, horizontal tangos, or the various other temptations of the late-night scene. These are songs where the characters could either be heading for redemption or disaster, or maybe both. There’s a fair amount of boredom and restlessness here, with little hint of resolution or positive endings.

Death guest stars on many of the songs. The clear Springsteen conceit aside, Finn’s cynical summation of “work at the mill and then you die” in “Constructive Summer” sets the tone for the much of the album. “Lord, I’m Discouraged” is damn bleak, with the narrator admitting “I mostly just pray she don’t die.” “Both Crosses,” so heavy on the religious imagery you might think you’re back in PSR, ranks among the darkest songs Finn has written. On top of a sparse musical arrangement, Finn sings “I’ve been mostly dying, and I’ve been mostly coughing, and I’ve been mostly crying.”

There are a few subtle shifts though. Whereas the band’s two previous albums explored drug and alcohol-fueled lives and the inevitable after-effects, some of the songs on Stay Positive find people simply struggling to come to terms with getting older, no chemical assistance required.

The title song (if you’re in a particularly bad mood, this song might set you off like Michael Douglass in Falling Down) finds the narrator increasingly tiring of wild nights. In “Joke About Jamaica,” a woman finds herself noticing that “the boys are getting younger and the bands are getting louder.” Longtime Hold Steady geeks will also notice that recurring characters Holly, Charlemagne, and Gideon don’t make any explicit appearances on the album. If any of the songs are about them, Finn’s not giving it away.

Stay Positive isn’t exactly The Hold Steady treading water, but it’s certainly not a major step forward musically either. In many ways it sounds like we’ve heard this before, or at least parts of it. Still, there are some noticeable shifts, even if it won’t stop the detractors from focusing on the band’s sometimes too-obvious influences.

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