Monday, January 15, 2007

The Hold Steady's stellar storyteller

I had a Barnes and Noble gift card burning a hole in my wallet while I was in NYC, so I decided to pick up a CD to review for one of my workshops. I picked out "Boys and Girls in America" by The Hold Steady, a record I'd heard good things about but had never actually heard. Word count kept me from saying more about the instrumentals (they're not *really* that boring, just less impressive than the lyrics and the singing), but here's a brushed-off version of the review I turned in for workshop.

Two literary allusions in the span of one song might peg a band as bookish. But on “Stuck Between Stations,” the lead track to The Hold Steady’s album “Boys and Girls in America,” lines about novelist Jack Kerouac and poet John Berryman set the stage for an artful, intriguing album. It makes many references to the depressants that fueled those writers’ lives and works, but the record, the third from this Brooklyn-based, Minneapolis-bred quintet, is far from a downer.

The band’s high-volume mix of guitars, keyboards and drums grinds away steadily, but the frantic mix of punk and blues that won raves for “Separation Sunday” (2005) sounds duller and less forceful. Neat piano flourishes, played by Franz Nicolay, occasionally emerge, but other added instruments – a horn section, a few string players – feel gimmicky, and the acoustic songs sacrifice punch for twang.

Singer Craig Finn’s lyrics, though, stand out above the unremarkable instrumentals. He grounds his songwriting in a lament from Kerouac’s “On the Road” that “boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.” Though Finn’s delivery works best at high speed, the grit he imparts to his stories of losing inhibition and ending up heartsick or hospitalized sounds great throughout. In his hearty croak, a dead-ringer for Bruce Springsteen, Finn fully inhabits every giddy youngster and sorrowful drunk. Even his sermonizing sounds like “The Boss,” cleverly mixing the language of faith and doubt with the fast cars and loose women of Kerouac: “It’s hard to feel holy when you can’t get clean…it’s hard to slow down when you’re picking up speed.”

The reference to Berryman adds doomed gravity to the excess. Berryman killed himself in Minneapolis in 1972, a victim of “all the drawn-out winters,” as Finn says. The shifting identities, sharp wit and unrequited love of Berryman’s poems “The Dream Songs” color the album’s lyrics.

After so many songs devoted to self-deception and self-medication, the album closes brilliantly with a final twist of perspective. Finn, a remarkably flexible raconteur, sticks up for fidelity: “Southtown girls may not knock you out / but you know they’ll stay.”

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