The Hold Steady Stay Positive

[Vagrant; 2008]

Styles: rock ‘n’ roll gospel, punk rock evangelicalism, and uh, oh yeah, bar band, bar band, bar band
Others: The Boss, the ‘Mats, Hüsker Dü

The Hold Steady waste no time mapping out their mission statement with “Constructive Summer,” the first track on their fourth album, Stay Positive: “Me and my friends are like/ The drums on "Lust for Life"/ We pound it out on floor toms/ Our psalms are sing-along songs.” The song goes on to outline plans for a summer full of shows, the gospel moving its reader to tears but who also rejects the fear and hate of organized religion, and a toast to St. Joe Strummer, “our only decent teacher.” Before breaking into a thoroughly E Street piano vamp, singer (term used loosely) and songwriter Craig Finn suggests this mantra: “Let this by my annual reminder/ That we can all be something bigger.”

The Hold Steady’s detractors will likely balk at the band's continued adherence to their formula: Catholic guilt over arena-rock bombast, loosely connected takes on wasted suburban kids searching for deeper meaning, over-the-top guitar solos, waves of flood organ, and solid backbone rhythm section. However, the die-hards (who I would argue get it) will find the band subtly expanding, tossing in a few strange, new tricks: restrained strings, a bit of harpsichord there, some wacky synthesizer bits. Ben Nichols of Lucero shows up on a couple tunes, and his sandpaper melodic vocals create an interesting counterpoint to Finn’s Mark E. Smith-gone-genial, not-quite-spoken-word delivery.

“Stay Positive” showcases the band moving in opposite extremes. The album's rockers -- and there are indeed plenty of them -- like “Constructive Summer,” “Sequestered in Memphis,” and the title track find the band evoking their punk rock heritage, with shout-outs to Youth of Today and 7 Seconds. And while I doubt those bands would be excited by the clearly “broken” edge of the ’Steady (gang chants of “Get hammered!” anybody?), the purity of their music suggests that Finn is interested in creating a similar devotion with his own ragtag rock gospel, reinforcing this notion with constant references to the band’s back catalog.

The other direction finds the band mixing things up. “One For the Cutters” features a woozy, harpsichord-laden verse by piano man Franz Nicolay, and the ivories that tinkle through the chorus sounds like Old West bar-room as opposed to, say, Billy Joel bar-room. Meanwhile, “Navy Sheets,” with guest backups from Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers, displays some wiggly analog synths, sounding sorta like The Anniversary, another Vagrant Records band of days long gone. That the whole thing doesn’t exactly, you know, work, is almost overshadowed by the band’s ambition.

Finn manages a soft croon over “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” by far the prettiest thing the band has recorded. Coming across like The Replacements doing a power ballad, the song features the best solo guitarist Tad Kubler has committed to tape. “Both Crosses,” a mostly acoustic lament, sounds like the of kind of creepy folky side of Hüsker Dü. Over banjos and theremin, Finn describes the treacherous betrayal of Christ by Judas and yet another girl in a mess: “You know I’m down to pay for it, just grant me some indulgences/ Cause I’ve been mostly dying.”

These melodic side trips serve as a counterpoint to what The Hold Steady do best. Album closer “Slapped Actress” is a glorious rocker, with down-strummed guitars charging the listener: “We are actors, the camera’s are rolling.” Over gang whoa-ohs, Finn intones, “Man, we make our own movies.” Like American Graffiti for indie rock kids, slackers, and burnouts alike, the song boils down what The Hold Steady do to its base form -- the serialized dramatization of normal stuff, the application of religious significance to drunken late-night benders. Finn evokes D. Boon of The Minutemen in his description of Stay Positive, “A great American philosopher named D. Boon once said ‘Our band could be your life.’ I think that is true. But ‘Your Life could be Our Band’ is also a true statement. I know this because we have lived it.”

It’s doubtful the scoffers will be converted by Finn’s soft focus snapshots of misspent youth, of the all-ages hardcore shows and water tower ragers. But for everyone else, the young men and women of America who recognize their genetically inherited love of passionate guitar solos and sweaty abandon, will find plenty to embrace here. Four records in, The Hold Steady are still zealous about their craft, consistently operating on the beautifully far-fetched notion that rock ‘n’ roll can change lives for the better, that we can find meaning and explanation in our lives through the antiquated combination of guitar, drums, piano, and bass. Stay Positive offers up plenty of reasons to let go and believe.

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