More on the Hold Steady
I started my review of the Hold Steady's "Stay Positive" with a bit of a backhanded compliment. The gist of it was: This is probably the worst Hold Steady album - but that when dealing with the Hold Steady, "worst" is loosely translated to "least awesome." Because for the fourth consecutive time, Craig Finn and gang have delivered a winner. But for the second consecutive time, it can't compete with what came before.
At least for me. In my mind, those first two Hold Steady albums - "Almost Killed Me" and "Separation Sunday" - stand as two of the best albums of the decade. "Boys and Girls in America" and "Stay Positive" are clearly by the same band, but with the rough edges smoothed out.
The band deserves plenty of credit for being able to adapt and appeal to a wider audience while still writing high-quality songs, but those rough edges were what made the band. Finn is surprisingly effective as an actual singer -- you know, someone who actually has notes he tries to hit -- but lots of people sing. His madman word-spewing on songs like "The Swish" and "Stevie Nix" was a singular treat. How deranged and hilarious did he sound on the latter when he shouted, "She said you remind me of Rod Stewart when he was young/You got passion and you think that you're sexy and all the punks think that you're dumb"?
Finn is still funnier - and sounds more deranged - than almost any lyricist out there, but now he's telling us "you got to stay positive" and that "dreams, they seem to cost money/But money costs some dreams." Part of what made "Almost Killed Me" and "Separation Sunday" work so well was that, in the midst of all the turmoil and debauchery, there was still a faint light at the end of the tunnel. On the last two albums that light keeps getting brighter and the rah-rah attitude doesn't suit the band as well.
A parallel I came up with over the weekend was with R.E.M. I was talking with some friends about Athens's finest (sorry, Pylon, Method Actors and Olivia Tremor Control), and we were incredulous about how some people call "Out of Time" and "Automatic for the People" the highlights of the band's discography. (I'm obviously not one of those people.) But those people certainly exist.
I kind of feel the same way about the Hold Steady. Those first two albums represent the true essence of the band; since then, there's been a conscious effort to toy with the formula and come up with something a little bit different. But then you get into the whole debate over whether a first album is always the best, which is for another time.
At least now we can just leave it with the fact that lots of people have a different favorite album, which is more than you can say for most bands.
So what's my point? Eh, nothing, really. Just J. Freedom's fault for only giving me 250 or so words to spout off on the most fascinating band around.
Thoughts on the new album? Love this one and "Boys and Girls" and find the first two unlistenable? Think the Hallelujah story arc of "Separation Sunday" will forever be the band's high point? Have at it in the comments. I'll argue with you as long as you want.
By David Malitz |
July 15, 2008; 11:32 AM ET
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