Monday, October 9

Album Review: The Hold Steady

“Boys and Girls in America”
Vagrant; 2006

If your high school English teacher was anything like I imagined mine to be, every day at five in the afternoon, he’d crack a beer, put on “In the Aeroplane Over the Sea” and moan about how apathetic and stupid his students are. For a few years now, every time the class fails their reading quiz for the second time, or fails to see the most obvious analogy, he’ll sullenly drive back home in his beat up VW, slam in The Hold Steady and begin a night of mid-week binge drinking.

Since their first release “Almost Killed Me” in 2004, and last year’s critically acclaimed “Separation Sunday”, the Hold Steady have magnificently paired singer Craig Finn’s nasal snarl with monstrous bar rock destruction. Their music reeks with the alcoholic chaos of youth, and those still trying to cling onto it. Finn consistently spins craftily intertwined stories of people trapped in alluring ruin of alcoholism and the scene. And with the clever referencing of the band name, reoccurring characters, and commonly used phrases draped over some of the beastliest and most triumphant of riffs, they’ve created something both unique and undeniably awesome. Like Steely Dan (the greatest band of all time), The Hold Steady have managed a lyrical disconnect which allows them to reach unmatchable heights both lyrically and musically. While their latest release, “Boys and Girls in America” displays change in both style and content (owing in large part to their signing to Vagrant Records), the spirit of The Hold Steady is stronger than ever and they manage to churn out one of the most irresistible albums of the year.

Vagrant was my favorite record label freshman year of high school and I can honestly say if today I met myself back then, I would punch myself in the face. However, amid their woefully abysmal roster (Senses Fail, Dashboard Confessional), Vagrant has snagged some actual talent (Paul Westerberg, Eels, and now The Hold Steady). The new label however has signaled a marked change in style including more polished production, less abrasive riffage, and more singing on the part of Finn. The production, done by John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Andrew W.K.), is far cleaner and more accessible than their often aggressive tone and harmonies of previous tracks (see The Swish, Most People are DJs, etc.).

Lead single, “Chips Ahoy!” starts disappointingly with power chords that wouldn’t be too foreign on today’s modern rock radio. Fortunately, the cheese isn’t so thick as to drown out Finn’s vocals, which for once sound sincere and personal instead of his usual objective wit. And, for the rest of the album, the band members do what they do best, cranking out powerful, unabashed rock songs such as “Soft Hot Light” and “Stuck Between Stations”. The second song that’s been readily available for quite some time is “First Night”, a ballad roll call of the characters from the first two albums. Predictable? Cheesy? Out of character? Yeah, but it all works, and comes to an awesomely overwhelming climax. The other stand out track is “Citrus”, a slow acoustic ballad to alcohol (what else?) which with accordion accents and Finn’s less than soothing singing voice, comes out surprisingly touching.

I could go on and pick apart each and every track, but that would kind of ruin the fun. Despite it’s initial disappointment, every time I listen to the album, it sounds stronger and stronger and I cannot help but be charmed by these guys. Check it out. Hell yeah.

The Hold Steady - Hot Soft Light
The Hold Steady - Citrus

- S.A. Andrée -

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