REVIEW BY: Julia Skochko
ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/21/2008
First thing: it’s not Boys And Girls In America. It’ll never be Boys And Girls In America. So stop comparing them, okay? You could pine for Boys And Girls‘ bad-boy charms, or you could surrender to the older, wiser embrace of Stay Positive. This isn’t to say it doesn’t rock -- that it does, and with all due hardness. But beneath the balls-out gusto is some serious contemplation. The kids have been places, seen things, given testimony. Their hands are still eager… but they’re also a little shakier and a lot dirtier. 2006’s Boys And Girls was a joyous cacophony -- lauded, loved and, like, totally loaded. Its recurring cast of miscreants couldn’t walk upright, but B&G deftly strode the line between wry and wide-eyed. It was philosophical fist-pumping, equally comfortable on critics’ year-end lists and puke-splattered jukeboxes… bar rock about rocking out to bar rock, man.
Stay Positive’s a different little baggie entirely.
If the last disc was an upper-fueled super ball bouncing from glitter to gutter, this one’s a stolen Camaro crashing into the local reservoir. It’s deeper, darker and less easily-accessible. Its inhabitants are older, more reflective… although not necessarily sobered up quite yet.
It is (per Craig Finn) a meditation on aging. It’s a concept album with a loose, noir-ish storyline. However, its focus isn’t on the blood but the guts - the killer parties’ existential aftermath. There’s romance, then there’s reckoning. The opener, “Constructive Summer” is a quarter-stick of pumped-up, propulsive guitar rock. The content, though, is more white-knuckle than middle finger (“getting older only makes it harder to remember / we are our only saviors”). Never has grim determination been so likely to result in simultaneous pogoing.
Determination -- desperate or otherwise -- is the album’s linchpin (Stay Positive is both title and edict). It’s about struggling to maintain creative control of one’s existence… whether as a hoodrat, a townie or (just maybe) a member of a rock ‘n roll band. And while Finn still riffs on the joys of this process, sadness gets equal billing. “Buy the ticket, take the ride” was Hunter S. Thompson’s favorite maxim. “Sometimes actresses get slapped” (from the powerhouse closing track) is a worthy, weary variant… four words that sum up both late-night ballsiness and the harsh light of morning.
The Hold Steadiverse is a distinctly American place, as is the band’s sound. However, it’s never been particularly easy to pin down. Attempting to describe Separation Sunday to a friend, the best I could muster was, “It sounds kinda like The E Street Band and the Dead Kennedys got into a fight at the top of a staircase, tumbled to the bottom while clutching their respective instruments and managed to sound really fucking good while doing it.”
Call it Tarantino syndrome -- being so in love with so many influences that you can’t resist incorporating each and every one. At best, it results in genius. At worst? An embarrassment. It’s certainly in full force on Positive, and while it results in the band’s most diverse effort to date, it’s also the disc’s greatest liability. “Joke About Jamaica” pays tribute to Zeppelin, Frampton and quite possibly Skynyrd -- and that’s just the breaks. “Navy Sheet”’s New Wave synths never really hang right on the song’s far-harder frame. You’ve gotta admire an album ambitious enough to go from Moog to mandolin in four tracks. But as many of its characters could attest, experimentation and excess don’t always mix.
The “ten pounds of song in a five-pound bag” phenomena is most evident on “One For The Cutters.” The Gypsy-fied saga of class warfare and culpability could’ve been fantastic (imagine the Decembrists binging on cock-rock and CourtTV). But no matter how great the material, there’s only so much one song can accommodate. The coda in particular (with its disillusioned uptown girl “getting nailed against Dumpsters behind townie bars”) is terrific, but occurs well after the song’s grown overblown and overlong.
It’s tough to fault the band for an excess of sonic zeal, though. The wide-eyed enthusiasm responsible for “Cutters”’s clunkiness also prevents the album from ever feeling formulaic. There are few things sadder than bored rock stars (attention, Interpol -- cracking a smile or two won’t annihilate your street cred). The subject matter on Positive may be fairly somber, but the album’s still suffused with a sense of inventiveness and, well, fun. “Both Crosses” updates “The Battle of Evermore” with blood, cacti and a theremin… and damned if it doesn’t work. It slowly fades… and you’re catapulted into the anthemic, rip-roaring title track. After the hypnotic “Crosses,” it’s more like a visit from an old (and ruckus-raising) friend. A tossed-off line from “Navy Sheets” sums it up perfectly… after four albums, Finn and Co. are still blessedly like “clever kids screwing with some new device.”
Cleverness alone does not an album make (see special clause, “excepting Mssrs. Timbaland and Yankovic”). But as anyone who’s attended a Hold Steady show can attest, this isn’t your average bar band. You arrive expecting the bastard children of Paul Westerberg and Robert Pollard; you leave floored by their professionalism and talent. While the detours, departures and Frampton make Stay Positive interesting, the musicianship makes it a Hold Steady record. The lower end’s a bit muddy, but the overall mix is big, brash and tight. Each member’s chops are impeccable -- at times, overly so. TadKubler’s always-slick guitars might benefit from a touch of grit. Multi-instrumentalist Franz Nikolai (who resembles the world’s most bad-ass organ grinder) has added a harpsichord to his arsenal of the esoteric. Finn’s vocals are still mouthy and manic… for the most part. On several tracks (”Lord, I’m Discouraged” and “Slapped Actress”), his delivery’s slower, finer-grit… nay, damned near melodic. Be itcorrelation or coincidence, they’re also the album’s best. They might not make your ass shake… but they may make your jaw drop.
"Discouraged” is structurally similar to “Cutters” -- sad story, amped-up reprise. However, its clarity and focus make for a far different (and stronger) track. It’s a slow, blues-tinged piano ballad whose flourishes only contribute to its strength. Even the Slash-ified guitar solo shows some modesty; it’s grand sans grandstanding. Finn’s not a fan of lyrical subtlety - and as few do bombast better, let’s hope he never becomes one. Every so often, though, he trades the circuitous for the straightforward. The results -- B&G’s “Citrus” and now “Discouraged” - have been soft, sweet heartbreakers. The tale’s common enough (pretty girl slides down the wrong rabbit hole on the wrong side of the tracks). Its impact comes from how it’s told… with both simplicity and aching poignancy.
It starts in Ybor City. It ends in epiphany. It’s bigger, rougher and more frantically intense than anything preceding it. “Slapped Actress” is one hell of a closer… less of a backhand than a karate chop to the solar plexus. Over a high-torque guitar and piano line, Finn delves into the perilous pleasures of grabbing the reins and holding the mic… night after night after night. The City of Tampa, Ben Gazzara and mystic visions all make appearances. And shortly after John Cassavettes is name-checked, the choir shows up. The final thirty seconds are a shiver-delivering blend of celestial hymn and chanting crowd. They’re less than sacred, more than secular… the perfect coda for an album which declares, “the sing-along songs will be our scriptures.”
At the Hold Steady mythology’s bruised-up heart is the possibility (not the promise) of redemption, whether via the songs, the scene or “the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers.” No prior album has featured a cast as hungry for redemption as Stay Positive. The perils of being whacked-out and cracked-out have been joined by those of bloody jackets, disturbing visions and burgeoning self-awareness. The houselights have flipped on. The Hold Steady’s looking heavenward.
I haven't heard this CD yet, so I have no way of knowing if I agree with your rating, but I really enjoyed your exploration of the album and its themes. This is confident, joyous writing, clearly informed by knowledge of and affection for the older Hold Steady stuff I know and love so well.
Where else can we read your stuff?