Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Golden with barlight and beer: The last in a series about The Hold Steady

If you're reading this sentence -- if you've been reading anything I've written lately -- you probably know that The Hold Steady's "Boys and Girls in America" went on sale today.

Yes, it's been a long wait, and yes, after the band's euphoric Sunday night show it's a little anticlimactic. Not to mention that I've had the album long enough that I've now listened to it about 20 times.

Tad Kubler and his badass new guitar. Sunday night at Irving
Plaza, via
rogo2000's photo stream.

Good News: "Boys and Girls in America" is clearly their most accessible album, packed with catchy hooks and choruses and vocals sufficiently close to singing that one of the most persistent gripes about the band may be slightly alleviated.

I'm not holding my breath. This is a polarizing band, and I understand that. The biggest reason I love them is a body of lyrics that speaks to me in a way that Springsteen speaks to some of my friends and Billy Joel speaks to others and Bob Seger speaks to a few. I've never loved those guys because I find them unrelatable. The Hold Steady's stories, I find hugely relatable, and they somehow came along at the right time in my life to work. In college I would have talked about Dante, in high school I would have talked about Dylan, in junior high I would have talked about the Detroit Tigers -- but right now it's a little embarrassing that the two things that thrill me most are a rock band and a college football team.

Notwithstanding, it's a peppy album -- at times a cheerful album -- even though one too familiar with hangovers and hospitals to be uplifting. It's their most listenable album. It doesn't wear you down and it wants you at the party.

The slightly less good news. It's no "Separation Sunday." It doesn't swing for the fences in the same way and it doesn't move in the same way. Craig Finn isn't drawing from the Old Testament or the Resurrection; he isn't telling a virtuoso multicharacter story about a fall and a redemption. As catchy as the songs are, none knocks me to the floor the way "Stevie Nix" and "How a Resurrection Really Feels" still do.

But expecting that would be unreasonable. "Blood on the Tracks" is still "Blood on the Tracks," and if you spend your whole time comparing "Desire" to the masterwork you're going to end up frustrated. A near-great album is nothing to scoff at.

But for one stretch, the album is great. In the middle of the album is a trio of perfectly aligned songs.

First is the graceful, beautiful "First Nights." We catch up with old friends from "Separation Sunday," and they've seen better days. After a brief melody from Franz Nicolay's piano, we're told that "Charlemagne shakes in the streets. Gideon makes love to the sweets. Holly's not invincible. In fact she's in the hospital, not far from that bar where we met on that first night."

What's the first night? The first high, and the first night they met. It's a mournful, beautiful songs about regrets, nostalgia, and separation. "Holly's insatiable. She still looks incredible, but she don't look like that same girl we met on that first night. She was golden with barlight and beer. She slept like she's never been scared."

Golden with barlight and beer: if that phrase doesn't evoke an image for you, this is not a band you want to know and you're not someone I want to drink with.

The piano-heavy tune evokes everything, drinking alone in a bar in the rain, thinking about what's missing and what you've missed. And after all of that beautiful bittersweet reminiscing, what do you learn? That's Holly's inconsolable because she can't get as high as she got on that first night. Is she talking about drugs (probably) or the ineffible (optimistically)? It's sad either way.

We get a slow crescendo starting with the album's title -- the phrase "boys and girls in America" repeated in a half-whisper -- that builds into a guitar boomlet and lyrics that allude to an ealier song on the album -- "don't bother with the guys with the hot soft eyes" -- and then the refrain "when they kiss they spit white noise." And those white-noise kisses contrast with the Twin Cities kisses from the first track, "Stuck Between Stations," where they "sound like clicks and hisses."

The lyrical self-references continue in the next track, "The Party Pit," which to my ears is a straight-out party song. The last time we were in the party pit, it was in "Separation Sunday's" song "Banging Camp," where we saw Holly shaking but still trying to shake it. It's the story about a lost girlfriend that the narrator met at the party pit. They "sailed away on such separate trips, and she got pimped out at the party pit" once the narrator was away at college.

In an e-mail, our occasional guest-blogger and commentator Crunk Raconteur indicated that he thought this was an extremely dark song. I don't hear it that way. I think that "pimped" is used in the colloquial sense, not a literal one. She thinks that all those things she did were just momentum from the party pit; our two main characters are speculating while they walk into a euphoria-inducing "brand new Minneapolis."

These aren't exactly good times, but like so much in this band's body of lyrics, they're times when the best and worst naturally coexist. The narrator is "pretty sure we kissed," but then he's left with no option but to "walk around and drink some more."

More ambiguous is the next song, "You Can Make Him Like You." The Sunday Times just ran an interesting article on this band that varied between the insightful and the vacuous, but one of the mysteries of it was a description of this song as "uncharacteristically heavy-handed."

The song is not heavy-handed. I'm not sure what exactly it is -- whether it's a bitter ex-boyfriend declaiming the recklessness of an ex-girlfriend, whether it's an oddly encouraging song about a spoiled girl who waltzes through whatever she likes, whether it's a depressed girl trying to encourage herself. It's a song packed with memorable lines: "You don't have to know inspiring people, let your boyfriend know inspiring people. You can hang out in the kitchen, talk about the stars and the upcoming sequel. ... You don't have to go to the right kind of schools, let your boyfriend come from the right kind of schools. You can wear his old sweatshirt and cover yourself like a bruise."

I don't know what exactly Craig Finn is trying to say, but with great specificity it conjures up all kinds of names, faces, incidents and disruptions from high school. Some of those girls turned out to have great lives and some did not, but we definitely knew them.

Mutual crowd-band love on display Sunday night at Irving Plaza,
rogo2000's photostream.

This three-song stretch is particularly strong, but scattered elsewhere on the album are some other small triumphs.

The strange and beautiful acoustic song "Citrus" is a paean to booze and Christianity: "Hey citrus, hey liquor, I love it when you touch each other ... I see Judas in the hard eyes of the boys working the corners. I feel Jesus in the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers." Like "Stuck Between Stations" and "First Nights," it's a genuinely moving piece of work.

The album's first single "Chips Ahoy!" and its companion piece "Hot Soft Light" are two of the hardest rocking, most straightforward songs on the album. "Chips Ahoy!" features a man who dates a woman with the psychic gift to predict the winners of horseraces. "Hot Soft Light" is a chronicle about addiction ("it started recreational / and it ended kind of medical / it came on hot and soft and then it tightened up its tentacles."). They're the band flexing its "Back in Black" muscles and giving the introspection a rest.

But then the album gets slightly clumsy. Another guitar-heavy song called "Same Kooks" is fine, but not particularly memorable. It abstains from the same lyrical pyrotechnics of earlier rockers like "Knuckles" or "The Swish."

"Massive Night" and "Southtown Girls" I found slightly annoying until I saw them played live, when they proved to be great sing-along anthems. "Massive Night," about antics at a school dance, comes across as a parody of Hold Steady lyrics, culminating with the lines, "She had a gun in her mouth and she was shooting up in her dreams when the chaperone said that we'd been crowned the king and the queen."

I classify that as trying too hard.

"Southtown Girls" sounds a little syrupy. If the phrase "Southtown girls won't blow you away, but you know that they'll stay" sounds potentially tiresome, you're right -- except when at a live show with several hundred of your best friends, screaming the words repeatedly.

Lastly, there's an abysmal song called "Chillout Tent." It's a song I'd rather forget. It's the story of two hugely unlikeable kids who show up at a rock festival, overindulge on psychedlics, detox in "the chillout tent," hook up, and never see one another again. Craig Finn serves as narrator, and two guest vocalists play the part of the boy and girl. The song sounds like a horrendous misfire from a Broadway musical that aspires to edginess; the guest vocals, so annoying that they're unbearable.

This band is nothing if not generous with thanks and lavish with praise to other musicians. I imagine that someone recognized this was a clunker, but, not wanting to offend the two guest vocalists (who have bands and careers of their own) they decided to include it anyway.

"Chillout Tent" poisoned my first listen of this album, which I've since grown to love. With the exception of "Chillout Tent," even the clumsy songs are better than 95 percent of other bands' output.

I previously made some Dylan allusions. Blasphemous, yes, and not particularly meaningful, but it's time to expand on the heresy.

I'm not speaking in terms of greatness.

But the best lyrics of The Hold Steady have created a wholly authentic and credible world of their own. Like "Desolation Row." Like "Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts." Like "Queen Jane Approximately" and "Like a Rolling Stone" and "One More Cup of Coffee." The Hold Steady has produced a near-great album and a kick-ass party, but have also established discrete worlds of their own, as universal as they are specific.

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