It’s hard to completely figure out the beer-soaked unshaven mess of a band that is The Hold Steady. On one hand you have lyrically intense and complicated songs that require a Dylan-esque guidebook to navigate, but then these lyrics get unashamedly tied to classic old-school rock riffs that dance right on the edge of plagiarism. Some days you feel like Finn has his finger on the heart of so-called independent culture and can diagnose the sad state of boys and girls in America like no one else, and then other days you’re not sure if the repetitive music has any other value than to hide pretentiously obscure and abstract stories that really have no connection to reality. You’re not sure if you should be turning your friends on to these positive jams, or if you should just be screaming that this emperor is completely and utterly naked.
To best understand The Hold Steady, you should understand one thing and one thing alone: it is rap music for the white man. This is no claim to understanding the history and intricacies of the genre/scene that we now call â€œrapâ€ or even a brilliant sociological exposition of the genre in relation to middle class white America, itâ€™s just a simple thought that at the end of the day, Craig Finn is the rap star for the wanna-be hipster, Kerouac-lusting, beatnik-worshiping white man. Heâ€™s one part prophet, two parts lucky, and probably just a little drunk, but heâ€™s still making music thatâ€™ll either make you want to hit repeat or skipâ€”thereâ€™s not a lot of room in between. No matter how strange the stories might get, Finn still tells stories with more life, personality and depth than nearly any other songwriter. If you buy into his vision, this new release will mesh perfectly with the past, if not, itâ€™s going to be tough to find a lot of love.
Thatâ€™s what it comes down to with The Hold Steadyâ€™s 2008 release, Stay Positive. It is comprised of sing-along songs that will take their place in musical scripture and then apocryphal strained melodies deserving of relegation to the back pages of the set-list. When the band is on, they write far catchier and honest melodies than Chris Martin could ever dream up (see â€œSequestered in Memphisâ€) and when theyâ€™re off, they rest in the same club as the unnamed singer, opening for British Sea Power, who decided to give the club a taste of the musical â€œHistory of Communism: Part Fourâ€ (see â€œNavy Sheetsâ€). Youâ€™re just ready for the subject to change.
This is where that whole bit about rap music comes in, because for the Hold Steady, like in rap music and no matter what anyone will tell you, the music is just a frame for the words. When the band can find a unique sound, like in the monster hit â€œStuck Between Stations,â€ the music elevates Finn and his words to the status of cultural prophet. His words carry Finn recognizes this fact in the self-referencing, slightly sardonic, written to be chanted title track: â€œCuz most kids give me credit for being down with it, when it was back in the dayâ€¦thereâ€™s going to come a time when the true scene leaders forget where they differ and get big picture/because the kids of the shows will have kids of their own/ and sing along songs will be our scriptures.â€
It reminds me of what happens when rap music becomes more than just a repetitious bass line with a few chords thrown inâ€”the lyrics can take on an almost spiritual urgency and transcend any time of stereotypical limitations. Stay Positive has its crowning moment when pianist Tad Kubler slow and masterfully drives the most powerful ballad on the album, â€œLord Iâ€™m Discouraged.â€ This is the song that, whether or not you can appreciate Finnâ€™s style of sing-speak or ripped off guitar riffs, youâ€™re not going to be able to help hitting repeat. Itâ€™s slow, grandiose, absolutely epic, and it just might make it on every mixtape I make this summer.
Like in previous releases, Finn borrows heavily from religious metaphors and imagery, especially in the dark blend of sarcasm and sadness that is â€œBoth Crosses.â€ (â€œShe knew a couple of boys/ and two of them were crucified/ the last one had enlightened eyes, but first one was Jesus/hey Judas I know you made a grave mistake/hey Peter youâ€™ve been pretty sweet since Easter break.â€) Itâ€™s hard to know whether Finn uses the images for more than their rich artistic texture and shock value, but on some level or the other, Finn is drawing from a personal religious experience that was less than perfect. Whether heâ€™s telling of the church camps down by the Mississippi, making his characters come stumbling into Mass with their hair done up in broken glass, or just begging you, â€œdonâ€™t tell my family, theyâ€™re wicked strict Christiansâ€â€”Finnâ€™s stories and albums canâ€™t get away from faith.
This album, like every Hold Steady release, has its share of sour notes, whether itâ€™s the monotonous â€œNavy Sheets,â€ the overblown â€œOne for the Cutters,â€ or the meandering â€œJoke about Jamaicaâ€â€” Finnâ€™s stories often get lost in a haze of undefined images and repetitive chord progressions. At the end of the day, this band makes music that gives a quasi-intellectual voice to the strange scene of â€œindependent music.â€ At its best, itâ€™s music to think and reflect on, and at its lowest common denominator, its still music that you can slur at the top of your lungs. Itâ€™s hardly perfect, hardly original, but itâ€™s a great summertime album and with a full schedule of tour dates, and youâ€™ll be chanting, â€œSubpoenaed in Texas, Sequestered in Memphis,â€ all summer long.
Nathan Martin is a Patrol assistant editor. He may be reached at email@example.com.
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