Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Hold Steady -- Stay Positive (2008)

The Hold Steady -- Stay Positive (Vagrant)

This could have just as well been titled Test Positive, knowing The Hold Steady’s penchant for singing songs about people who live to get high and drunk. Indeed, the opening song, “Construction Summer” is a rousing anthem. Craig Finn proudly states how he and his buddies are going to “build something this summer.” Build what? A home for Habitat for Humanity? A space rocket? Nope -- a ladder so they can get drunk on the town water tower.

Finn explores the world of fuck ups and the fucked up with wit and empathy. I don’t know how much time he’s spent with these folks, but he clearly finds them fascinating. Once in a while there’s a bit of “there but for the grace of God go I” aspect to these songs.

The music sounds like what some of these barflies and stoners would listen to. Springsteen again dominates the recognized influences, and Thin Lizzy is still there, along with any ‘70s band that mastered the big dumb riff, from Bachman Turner Overdrive to Cheap Trick. In fact, the opening bit of “Construction Summer” is an homage to the Trick’s “Hello There”. Very cool.

Meanwhile, the literary quality of Finn’s lyrics, which came to the fore on Separation Sunday (the band’s second album -- this is the fourth), which I didn’t think developed on the good but not great Boys And Girls In America, seems to have gone up a notch on some of these songs.

As a result, The Hold Steady now gets accused of being pretentious. Finn does have pretensions, but he earns them. Part of the way he does that is writing simple fun story songs like the single, “Sequestered in Memphis”. It’s a singalong song about that classic topic - being interviewed in a murder case. In the verses, Finn details what he did with the victim, to the apparent skepticism of Johnny Law, as each verse ends with “I’ll tell the story again.” Finn’s hangdog speak-singing makes this poor bastard seem sympathetic, but as Finn intones over and over at the end of the song, “I went there on business,” I wonder if the cops found their man.

Death and biblical references snake their way through some of the songs. Others just focus on those who’ve gotten a raw deal.

In “Navy Sheets”, Finn takes a step or two in James Ellroy territory, detailing a lurid accident scene where “we’re trying to match the mouths to the screams.” The song is built on a typical razor sharp guitar riff from Tad Kubler, with Franz Nicolay adding some odd prog rock synth color. This is high drama hard rock, with Finn shifting from omniscent perspective to first person, with one of the victims of this crash thinking “We’re either dead or really tired.”

Meanwhile, “Both Crosses” (with guest banjo by J. Mascis!) plays like a slow track from Bob Seger’s salad days (think “Sunburst”). Here, Finn sings of a girl who has visions of the crucifixion. Or is it a murder? As the song goes on, the answer becomes obvious. This is a track that shows how The Hold Steady is adding dimensions to its sound, as the tune is grounded in atmosphere and narrative, rather than a big hook.

Another good slow number is “One for the Cutters” about a gal who makes a lot of bad choices. Nicolay mixes in some high falutin’ piano parts with a faux harpsichord. In this song, the woman at the center of the song parties with some townies, and ends up hooking up with a guy in a heap of trouble: “He didn’t seem that different/except for the blood on his jacket.” Again, things only get worse from there. She may be more than a witness in this case.

Don’t worry that this is getting too sophisticated. There are plenty of fine rockers, like the rousing title cut and the Cassavettes referencing “Slapped Actress”, and fun lyrics like the Led Zeppelin title laced “Joke About Jamaica”. This band has managed the difficult trick of adding more polish and adding more grit at the same time. It sounds as good if not better than anything The Hold Steady has done to date.

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