Thursday, May 29, 2008

"Baby, let's transverberate"

So, the most prolific band in the mini-genre of middle-class indie rock masquerading as working class hero, blue-collar rawk (cf. Drive-By Truckers, um, no-one else), The Hold Steady are about to release their fourth album, Stay Positive. I must say that I approached the record - as a fan, may I add, in case you didn't know already - with some trepidation. I have my problems with the previous album, Boys And Girls In America, despite originally creaming myself over it on these very pages.

Well, I'd like to say that I needn't have worried, that The Hold Steady have made the album that would put my mind at ease as both fan and critic. Stay Positive isn't that record. It is, however, a record that ticks all of my fanboy boxes and pushes so many of my buttons in the way that previous Hold Steady albums have in the past, but the critic in me sees through it like so many hotdog grease-stained napkins.

Stay Positive sees the band expand and grow as musicians in so many ways and also features some of their strongest songs. The practically sordid 'Navy Sheets' (complete with a flamboyant, Edgar Winter-esque keyboard riff from Franz Nicolay) is the closest the band has come to outright sexy and the dust-blown Western licks of 'Both Crosses' both measure up to anything they've done before. Also, the way that the bass, guitar and keyboards intertwine and rub up against each other in 'Yeah Sapphire' is phenomenal.

BUT - it's a big one, hence the capitals - Stay Positive makes me feel even more dirty for liking this band than any of their other records. I'm not the type of guy who dislikes things just because I think I should. For instance, is there any other better way to enjoy Nutella than by dipping your fingers into it? It's wrong, but it's so good. However, I know I shouldn't enjoy The Hold Steady's music as much as I do, especially this album.

Why? Well, the key to my status as a self-loathing THS fan lies squarely at the feet of frontman and lyricist, Craig Finn. It seems to be getting increasingly easy for him to write songs that pander to those who already love the band, so you get the feeling that he's getting lazier and more eager to preach to the converted with each release. Every reference to drunken misadventure or fucked-up love in Ybor City or St. Paul on Stay Positive makes me groan each time I listen to it. If this is all Finn has to draw on, that's fine, but he doesn't even deal in relatable universals anymore. His lyrical palette is getting narrower as the band mature musically.

Tad Kubler, Franz Nicolay and bassist, Galen Polivka own this record but Finn lets the side down time and again. Just write a fuckin' book already. This band could be special but the guy who writes the words is stuck in a massive rut. I smell a backlash coming up around the corner.

The Hold Steady - Joke About Jamaica (mp3)

The Hold Steady - Yeah Sapphire (mp3)

More essential summer listening tips coming up over the weekend.




Blogger jonthebeef said...

Y'know what, I agree totally with you. 'Stay Positive' is a good record - great fun even - but there is a very "by numbers" quality to it. You can't really fault the musicianship, but where BAGIA had a story to tell, all that's happened since is the band have got older, yet still sing about college days.

I'm all for rip-roaring good fun, and this album delivers that in spades. But it doesn't sound like a band moving forward: More a band doing the same, yet maintaining the quality. It maybe is the sound of a band who finally worked out what people like, and don't know how to move from it. I do, GENUINELY, like this record, but not any more than their previous. If anything, I like it a little less.

See also (but not as good):

Green Day - Insomniac
Blur - The Great Escape

10:40 pm  
Blogger bentrup said...

i totally agree with you. i take finn to town...check it out:

6:23 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm right there with you, word for word. All the call backs on the title track are just too much.

Still looking forward to seeing them in a month.

6:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think there is a difficult balance between creating an interesting and thematic catalogue of songs for fans to really appreciate lyrically and as you've said a series of keywords for obsessivs to cream over after each new placement.
Personally, I think a lot of the advancement musically actually can be see lyrically as well. In this album you can see darker and more personal lyrics. While before Finn stayed souley behind the stage curtains, here we see him speaking about his own experiences.
For every reference he makes, I feel that there is some kind of advancement on this album to balance it out.

8:57 pm  

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