The thing about The Hold Steady is that it’s all about the characters. It’s about the people who populate these songs and the facts of their behavior, never mind the motivation. It’s about the sound that propels their fateful tales, the steamy nights that sweat through the classic rock guitar licks and sax solos. It’s the mystery in the harpsichord and the acceptance of the truth in Craig Finn’s vocal resignation. It’s his choice of language, the tongue of the average citizen, and his empathy for the matter-of-fact way of life. And, of course, Mr. Finn is adept at resurrecting those crazy, debauched, days of youthful indiscretion.
Yes, this is an album called Stay Positive and the guys in this band know just how much work that takes. The Hold Steady have been doing just that for years. Most of the band members are approaching 40 and have years of job juggling behind them. Stay Positive is their 4th release and follows their 2006 commercial breakthrough Boys And Girls In America.
Four of the band members hail from the Minneapolis-Saint Paul area and their roots ring out as strains of Husker Du shadow the opening track “Constructive Summer.” Finn and band channel their youthful selves for a fun romp through those lost summers of early adulthood while guitars, piano and drum compete to out pound each other. Track 2, the lively “Sequestered In Memphis” reverberates with Springsteen and E Street band horns and sax. Here, again, that conversational tone that Springsteen used to talk about girls in cars on hot summer nights come shining through in Finn’s exuberant retelling of a night of bliss. “One For The Cutters” offers a new facet of the band’s sound. This murder mystery uses harpsichord for atmosphere and just enough information to keep you guessing.
Finn shows a remarkable ability to convey the frustration and ultimate resignation in dealing with addiction on “Lord, I’m Discouraged.” The honesty captured in lyrics like “Excuses and half truths and fortified wine/I know it’s unlikely she’ll ever be mine/So I mostly just pray she don’t die” packs a pretty powerful punch. The title track is an uproariously fun rocker that tips its hat to the ragged rock of The Replacements. As you’re bouncing around to the music be sure to pay attention to those lyrics. The Hold Steady may have been tagged “the best bar band in America” but it must have been one of those smart college watering holes. These party boys got themselves some education and they know how to use it.