Sunday, April 22, 2007

The Hold Steady's mild-mannered new release

One of my rules of thumb is that a band that employs an accordion has something up its sleeve that I won't much care for. I rolled my eyes when I read that the new five-song Hold Steady CD, "Live at Fingerprints," would include a cameo appearance from an accordion.

It's not that I don't appreciate it when bands tweak and reconfigure their songs. Volume 5 of Bob Dylan's Bootleg series, from his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, is spectacular in the way it reimagines his canon. Dylan's a little like a jazzman in the way that he takes the cores of his masterpieces and spins his variations. This annoys some of his concertgoers to no end, but in my mind it's part of why his performances never have the flavor of a nostalgia tour.

"Live at Fingerprints" appropriates The Hold Steady's throttlings and turns them into love taps. This is fine, and the instrumentation is perfectly lovely, kind of like of Colin Melloy had been asked to produce a Hold Steady album. The track list is short (Cattle and the Creeping Things; Chips Ahoy; You Can Make Him Like You; Citrus; and You Gotta Dance With Who You Came to the Dance With) and the only song that feels full at home is "Citrus" -- which was already an acoustic, bittersweet reflection on decadence and salvation.

One of the qualities that sticks out is how rough Craig Finn's voice is when accompanied by acoustic instrumentation. His shouts don't feel out of place (at least not to me) when the band is at full force, but in this context it's a blunt instrument.

Pitchfork's review observes:
Still, Live at Fingerprints-- recorded at a Long Beach in-store performance-- underscores something that's easily missed in the Hold Steady's recorded output: It's not the performances that make the band so special, it's the songs.
Well, this is true only if you've never quite listened to the songs. (iTunes leads me to estimate that I've listened to the band's songs more than 2,000 times, a number that, even in light of my copious writings, is unnerving.) Craig Finn gets compared to a lot of people, but one of his peers might be Quentin Tarantino. They're both genre-obsessed and draw from a pretty broad tapestry of the culture.

If anything, the version of "Chips Ahoy" underscores how lyrically weak it is (yes, it rocks, but the story and the refrain grate on me a little) and "Cattle and the Creeping Things" loses most of its dark power when Tad Kubler's pounding guitar is supplanted by an accordion.

"You Can Make Him Like You" seems to work out fine. It's a song that I've never been able to decode -- is it mocking the girls it depicts or celebrating them? -- but here, it sounds sympathetic and lonely. In this respect, it's kind of a hint at what can happen when a band reimagines a song and pulls it off. An acoustic version of "Stuck Between Stations" made the rounds on the internet in the months before the release of "Boys and Girls in America." It heightened the song's poignancy while soft-pedaling its pyrotechnics.

There's nothing wrong with "Live at Fingerprints," even if it isn't quite "Live at Leeds" (and the band probably does have a "Live at Leeds" in them), and as I twiddle my thumbs waiting for whatever skull-knocking epic they release next, it's nice to get this short postcard to hear what they've been up to.

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