Saturday, December 13, 2008
The Hold Steady, Stay Positive (Vagrant)
We’re still swooning over Boys and Girls in America, to be honest. That record’s bless-the-losers vibe, its rousing acceptance of advancing age and casual transgression, its ruddy heart, and its songs, were so on, so right, that it’s one of the rare records I’m listening to two years later. So expectations for Stay Positive were high, and for the most part, Craig Finn and co. deliver again. Opener “Constructive Summer” hits like a hot mid-afternoon beer buzz, and scores bonus points for referring to Joe Strummer as a saint. Then you find yourself in the midst of “Sequestered in Memphis,” which should already be playing on classic rock stations across the land on the strength of its piano-organ-guitar front line and its sing-along chorus. We’ll call “One for the Cutters” a brave misfire, because this band’s done enough to earn some of our patience, but yeah, the harpsichord (!) is a mistake. Things chug along like that, though, with pinches and dashes of a lot of the songs you’ve loved since you could turn on a radio yourself. It doesn’t all really gel again until track 8, “Stay Positive,” where the bile-and-nostalgia lyrics and the guitars mesh with the shouted “whoa-oh-ho-ho” chorus, and you begin to wonder if you haven’t shouted along with that chorus sometime in the hazy past, somewhere you can’t name. The Hold Steady frequently arouse such false memories; they’re sometimes called classicists, and sometimes labeled nothing more than a bar band, but as long as we have need for bars, we’ll have need for bar bands, especially ones as good as this. At their core such groups are made up of people who’ve obviously spent their lives listening to Big Albums, and hoping they’d make one themselves someday. These guys did – it was called Boys and Girls in America – and now they’ve followed it up with a Damn Good Album. It could never be as invigorating as hearing Boys and Girls… for the first time, but Stay Positive is the record that confirms that this band is one to grow older alongside. I said it in ’06, and I think it holds true: The Hold Steady’s failures seem terribly real, and their victories kind of feel like your own.