More on the Hold Steady

The Hold Steady, not quite like the first time.

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 Hold Steady
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I must say I completely agree. And good REM comparison. Although "Boys and Girls" really grew on me even if it was more polished so that I honestly can't rank the first three albums. I have a feeling the new album will do the same. And even if it doesn't quite make it, I'll take the 4th best Hold Steady album over 99.99% of all albums. As long as Craig still acts like a maniac during live shows and they close with "Killer Parties", I'll be there.

Posted by: Wombat | July 15, 2008 1:27 PM

I just bought Stay Positive while at lunch and will listen to it as soon as I've gotten through the first three. It's Hold Steady Day!

Posted by: Dave Lifton | July 15, 2008 1:31 PM

Separation Sunday is clearly, undeniably, absolutely their best album. That album has something in it's sweatpants.

Posted by: Ben W. | July 15, 2008 2:40 PM

eMusic has a couple live offerings -- both end with "Killer Parties"

Posted by: polly | July 15, 2008 3:25 PM

Craig Finn sounds like Springsteen on codeine.

Posted by: BPM | July 15, 2008 10:56 PM

Craig Finn sounds like Mike Doughty on 3 packs of cigarettes.

Posted by: Ben W. | July 16, 2008 8:09 AM

I can't argue but so much. Separation Sunday may be my alltime favorite album. But I'm glad they haven't continued trying to produce the same kind of rough-edged insanity over and over. It would just be forced at some point. The music and the lyrics are, instead, growing with them.

And what they have done here is killer. I need to give it more listens, but it may be my new 2nd favorite THS album. They're certainly growing musically. "Both Crosses" - damn.

And the lyrics are still brilliantly drawn stories. They're just more dark than funny. This one has a genuine undercurrent of depression. faced down, or at least faced up to, by the flag of defiance which is the "stay positive" theme.

Posted by: Hoodrat | July 16, 2008 9:45 AM

I came late to the party, so I'm a Boys and Girls fan, but Separation Sunday is gaining QUICK.

Stay Positive, on the other hand, isn't. I think the biggest problem is sequencing... "One for the Cutters" and "Navy Sheets" just don't work where they are, if at all.

On a related note, David, given your love of Finn, Malkmus, Dylan, Berman et al... are you familiar with this term?

Posted by: David | July 16, 2008 9:52 AM

Hoodrat, you hit on some good points, mainly that having the band make the same album over and over would get boring. At the same time, it happens that most bands are good (or at least best) at one specific thing, and once they stop doing that one thing the quality goes down hill. I think the Hold Steady has handled this transition pretty well. Other bands don't.

Thanks for that link, other David. How does that Wiki page not have a picture of Mark E. Smith? All my favorite singers couldn't sing.

Posted by: David | July 16, 2008 10:26 AM

Dunno, good question.

Incidentally, I always thought Finn looked like David Wain if he were crossed with Milton from Office Space. And if that guy happened to be a preacher in a revival tent. Standing next to a Snidely Whiplash-moustachioed keyboardist, of course. And...

I should stop. Sorry, gang.

Posted by: David | July 16, 2008 12:18 PM

Near as I can tell, the first two records just don't have the TUNES.

Kudos on the David Wain ref. Back in the day my band played somewhere in WV and somehow women followed us back to the house we were staying at. They were flummoxed when we spent the rest of the night watching our host's "The State" VHS library. (We probably would've found some other excuse to not hook up, as we all had GFs, but watching "The State" seems particularly nerdy.)

Posted by: Jet Age Eric | July 16, 2008 2:42 PM

Oooh! And: Craig Finn looks EXACTLY like (semi-)retired DC drum hero John Rickman. Also, my wife toured with Finn when he was Lifter Puller briefly. I just think that's cool.

Posted by: Jet Age Eric | July 16, 2008 2:44 PM

All you sniffling indie kids, hold steady!

Not as good as the first two, agreed, but it might be a grower. I have endless faith in this band.

Posted by: drivelikekarin | July 17, 2008 3:40 PM

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