- The Washington Times - Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Hold Steady

Stay Positive

Vagrant

Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn doesn’t shout so much anymore. This could be in part because of the ministrations of a voice coach and in part because there’s only so long any artist - particularly a late bloomer like Mr. Finn - can sustain the pose of an enfant terrible. The bespectacled Brooklyn-based hipster still can be counted on for story songs with a literary bent and driving melodies that fuse punk beats with hummable guitar riffs.

Yet on “Stay Positive,” there’s a new precision that augurs the band’s departure from its lo-fi origins. Insistent upper-register piano tinkles suggest that by mimicking the decidedly unhip influences of hit makers Billy Joel and Elton John, the Hold Steady (appearing at the 9:30 Club on Aug. 14) apparently is trying to pull off that most unlikely of rock-‘n’-roll feats: aging gracefully.

The inability to age gracefully, in fact, is the subject of the cautionary tune “Joke About Jamaica.” It’s about a worn-out band groupie who has the misfortune of still being out in the clubs as the next generation comes up behind her. The song opens with a simple, distorted three-chord progression backed by drums and sustained organ notes that add a mood that mixes menace and regret. Mr. Finn sings, “Back then it was beautiful/ The boys were sweet and musical/ The laser lights looked mystical/ Messed up stuff felt magical,” with half-step ascents accompanying each line of the chorus. The effect is equal parts David Bowie and Andrew Lloyd Webber.

“One for the Cutters” is another lengthy character study, this time about a wastrel of a college girl who condescends to socialize with the locals. Mr. Finn gives his Warren Zevon-inspired tale an interesting twist, with intimations of a violent crime that the girl conceals. The weirdness of the ballad is signaled with the opening of harpsichord arpeggios and syncopated guitar chords.

“Stay Positive” is front-loaded with guitar-driven rock anthems that channel another of the Hold Steady’s enduring influences - Bruce Springsteen. The drumbeat that opens “Constructive Summer” is a nod to “Born to Run.” It’s a rushed, dense racket of rhythm guitar. The rollicking bar-band flavor of the song belies another downbeat message about disappearing time. The exuberant “Sequestered in Memphis” opens with a wall of piano and guitar and speaks of a sudden and unsavory love affair.

AUDIO:Click here to listen to “Sequestered in Memphis”

The album has a kind of split personality. About half the songs are driven by Tad Kubler’s guitar playing, both driving rhythms and shredding solos, dripping with special effects. Many of the solos feel familiar - even self-consciously referential. The piano-dominant songs sound clearer and brighter, if not quite sweet. One thing hasn’t changed: The Hold Steady remains one of those infectious bands whose music commands the listener to buy concert tickets.

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