Boys And Girls In America

The Hold Steady

Vagrant Records, 2006

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love


From two years ago, I still remember reading former staff writer Julia Skochko’s glowing review of The Hold Steady’s Stay Positive. I’d never heard a Hold Steady song at that point, and wouldn’t until – oh, two weeks ago – when I snatched a copy from a friend to pad my recently destructed iTunes. And now I understand what that effusive praise was all about. And their third album, 2006’s much-loved Boys And Girls In America, is a pretty solid introduction to The Hold Steady universe, full of Craig Finn’s unparalleled, prose-y lyricism, guitar riffs that shake the risers, and a bluesy/boozy heart steeped in classic rock but with a wink and a twist all their own.

Though The Hold Steady are often touted as America’s greatest bar band, that’s a pretty reductive tag for a band that has far more flair – they’re more of an Okkervil River mixed with Bruce Springsteen (twisted, vivid lyrics and soul-piercing anthems) than a dusty jukebox playing “Don’t Stop Believin’.”  Every minute of this near-flawless disc is jammed with rollicking pianos, sparkling wordsmithery, and Finn’s strangely endearing brand of speak-singing. Opener “Stuck Between Stations” immediately pulls you in, no slow buildup, just the burning immediacy of this group’s tunes. “We drink and we dry and we crumble into dust / We get wet and we corrode and now we’re covered up in rust,” Finn repeats, but it doesn’t sound so bad a fate when paired with such a dynamic combo of squealing guitars and plaintive piano.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

Boys And Girls In America inhabits a world jammed with horse races (“Chips Ahoy!”), neverending highs, and ever-flowing drinks (surprise hit single “Party Pit,” for one). There’s not really ever a comedown, just a swirl of soaring hooks and lines that stick in your head like a good buzz.  When every cut is a knockout, it’s hard to pick favorites, but moments such as “Citrus” and “Same Kooks” do stand out. The former is probably the calmest the album ever hits, thrumming on mostly restrained acoustic guitars, but lines like “I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere” are understatedly lovely.  Meanwhile, “Some Kooks” jams with unflinching speed, illustrating a gloriously sinful set of, well, kooks (“Gideon’s got a pipe made from a Pringles can,” “She said it’s hard to feel holy when you can’t get clean”). And of course, on each and every track, the big swirls of Tad Kubler’s guitars, Bobby Drake’s singing drums, and the anchoring bass of Galen Polivka are an integral part of The Hold Steady’s heart-tugging, vivid, to-the-cheap-seats sound.

Still, for a band so wrapped up in telling stories, rendering scenes in all their colorful grit, it’s the experience of listening to these songs as a whole that trumps any cunning wordplay. You can analyze the lyrics all you want, but as Finn writes on “Stations” – à la fallen poet John Berryman (who Okkervil River also immortalizes on The Stage Names) – “You’re pretty good with words, but words won’t save your life.” This is music to drink to, to live to, and that is what ultimately emerges in this complicated, catchy, crazed disc.

Rating: A-

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© 2010 Melanie Love and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Vagrant Records, and is used for informational purposes only.