The Hold Steady are not a band everyone is going to like.
Musically their sound - pristine piano runs, wide open guitar riffs - is as populist as rock 'n' roll gets. Vocally, well, that's where the problem comes in. No one will ever mistake Craig Finn for a talented singer. As my buddy John astutely observed, "He sounds like Randy Newman on crank."
The band's first two albums concerned the hard-partying and salvation-seeking exploits of three characters, Charlamagne, Gideon and Holly. The songs rarely had choruses; the lyrics flew at you like you were Tippi Hedren. As Finn explained in an interview last year, he had so much to say that repeating himself hardly seemed worth it.
On the excellent Boys And Girls In America (named after a line in Kerouac's On The Road), that's all changed. Sure, Finn still sounds like a man ranting on a street corner, but he has freed himself from his characters, and found joy in repetition.
He takes advantage of it right away. Album opener Stuck Between Stations concerns John Berryman, a poet and University of Minnesota professor who committed suicide. And while there's no lyrical chorus to speak of, certain lines repeat: "These Twin Cities kisses / sound like clicks and hisses / And we all come down and drown in the Mississippi river." It's effective and affecting.
But even the new world order is quite familiar. Despite the lack of a concept, Finn's lyrics are still centered on drugs, alcohol, and parties. In nearly every song someone is high, on a trip, OD'd, blacked out or just getting drunk.
And though Finn and co. have all relocated to New York, the Twin Cities are all over this record, with so many streets (France, Lyndale, Nicollet, Lowry, Columbus) and places (Bloomington, the Quarry, the Grain Belt bridge, the Southtown Mall) mentioned, the CD could double as a metro area map.
Among the many highlights there's a funny reminiscence about prom night called Massive Nights, a twisted love story that takes place after two concert festival goers overindulge and meet up in the Chillout Tent, and the cynical You Can Make Him Like You, which is about girls who lose themselves in their boyfriends' identities.
Though Finn gets all the attention, I can't say enough about the musical backing of these songs. First of all, we see some evidence of stretching: The woozy, piano-based First Night (which briefly revisits Holly, Gideon and Charlamagne) is best described as "pretty." And Citris is an acoustic ballad with some impressive finger-picking by guitarist Tad Kubler.
The band can also just flat-out rock. You'll no better example than Chips Ahoy!, the tale of a girl who intuitively knows which horse will win at the track. The organ rolls, the power chords shred and the back-up vocals encourage you to shout along: "Whoa-oh-ho!" The amazing Hard Soft Light is a close second for king of rock status.
In the end, I believe it's the musical and lyrical balance that makes The Hold Steady so intriguing. If they had a polished singer there would be little to differentiate them from the Nickelbacks of the world. With Finn and all of his idiosyncrasies, the band are something truly unique.
And that's more important than having everyone like them.
Fave Song: Southtown Girls
Fave Line: "She was a real cool kisser but she wasn't all that strict of a Christian / She was a damn good dancer but she wasn't all that great of a girlfriend." (from Stuck Between Stations)