Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Stay Positive

This post has been revised. My review of Stay Positive, The Hold Steady's latest, is a bit longer than originally posted on the Stop Smiling site. They may be posting the full version, but just in case, here it is in its entirety:

The Great American Rock Band tends to be like the novel of the same name -- fun to theorize about; almost impossible to capture in the wild. But with their fourth record, Stay Positive, The Hold Steady make their fourth straight convincing claim for the title.

The group’s music -- with influences like Thin Lizzy, the E Street Band, and The Who -- is famously democratic. They’ve been called a “bar band” countless times, not because such small spaces are appropriate for their talent, but because there’s something both gregarious and unpretentious about their reliable delivery of monstrous riffs.

Still, when you’re in the mood for The Hold Steady, no one else -- including their many influences -- will do, and that’s because of singer and lyricist Craig Finn. With the unpretty urgency of his spoken-sung vocals, he has chronicled the chemically altered nights, flailing romances, and stunted dreams of a cast of Minneapolis residents with names like Charlemagne, Gideon, and Holly (short for Hallelujah; the characters are religion-haunted as well). Finn moved from Minnesota to Brooklyn before forming The Hold Steady, but it's his former midwestern home that has given his songs their sense of place.

On Stay Positive, things are further flung. For one thing, no members of the regular cast are identified by name. And instead of singing about how “everyone was comin’ towards the center of the city,” as he did on the last record’s “Massive Nights,” Finn name-checks Sacramento, Cheyenne, Texas, Memphis, and Aberdeen. Whoever these characters are, they can’t be contained by Minneapolis. Finn even seems reluctant to utter the name of the band’s most Dionysian out-of-town party spot, singing on “Slapped Actress,” the closing track, “don’t tell them Ybor City almost killed us again.”

If Stay Positive isn’t exactly a refutation of all the dangerous-but-good times in the band’s previous work, it has the sore joints of a long-overdue hangover. Yes, the first two tracks offer familiar pleasures. On the raucous opener, “Constructive Summer,” Finn sings, “we’re gonna lean this ladder up against the water tower / climb up to the top and drink and talk / this summer.” And the first single, “Sequestered in Memphis,” features the closest you’ll get to a 12-word summation of his lyrical style: “in bar light, she looked all right / in daylight, she looked desperate.”

But “One for the Cutters,” laced with harpsichord, includes murder and a courtroom. And “Lord, I’m Discouraged” finds Finn profoundly worried about a girlfriend in the hospital, who may or may not be the aforementioned Holly. On “Joke About Jamaica,” he sings “we were kids in the crowd / now we're dogs in this war / we were wasps with new wings / now we're bugs in the jar.”

This isn’t to say Finn has lost his caustic sense of humor. There’s room on Stay Positive for hoping that girls kiss you even though they’re “pretty pissed,” and hanging out where someone cat sits, and raising toasts to “saint Joe Strummer.” But Finn turns 37 soon after the record’s release, and it sounds hard-earned when he sings, “we were hot, soft and pure / now we're scratched up in scars.” It was inevitable that the crises of faith that quietly ran through previous records would find their way to center stage, as they do here. Finn questions God, the drugs, and the cost of having once felt invincible. But the band still makes a mostly celebratory noise behind the rueful lyrics. Coming out of The Hold Steady’s amps, even the scars carry some of the afterglow from the massive nights.


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