|The Hold Steady:
Boys and Girls in America Label: Vagrant
New rock for people who like classic rock. That’s the most concise way to describe Boys and Girls in America, the new album from the Hold Steady. Building off the critical acclaim of 2005’s Separation Sunday – namely, the album’s semi-breakthrough hit, “Your Little Hoodrat Friend” – the Minneapolis trad-rock outfit recognized what they did right on the track and did it at least half dozen times on America.
Vocalist/guitarist Craig Finn has one of the most distinct voices in the business, and while his speak/sing tendencies are an acquired taste for some, his vocals are amazingly cathartic. Part of this is the uniqueness of Finn’s voice, but his colorful lyrics certainly come into play. On the band’s first two efforts, his lines were generally better than the music, but on America, this evens out considerably. On the album’s opener, “Stuck between Stations,” Finn sings, “She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian / She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend.” Guitarist Tad Kubler still provides the big chords, but there’s more – or is it just better? – piano on America, which adds a whole other layer of melody to the entire record. The ivory on “Stations” complements the guitar and lyrics beautifully, giving the track an early Springsteen feel.
Finn’s lyrics are usually specific, which actually makes them easier to relate to than lyrics aimed at the masses. There are a lot of “Hey, I know that guy!” moments in their catalog, and America is no exception. It helps that just about every song is a story, like “Chips Ahoy!,” which describes a girlfriend who didn’t have to work because she could always pick the winning horse at the track. After a profitable day at the races, Finn sings, “We spent the whole next week getting high.” But that’s no surprise – a vast majority of the Hold Steady’s songs are about (or involve) some sort of drug use. Usually, it’s simply hard drinking and hard partying, but occasionally Finn digs deeper, such as mushrooms and pills on “Chillout Tent,” which is a charming story about a boy and a girl who met each other after being taken to the first aid tent at a festival. There are other drug references as well, but Finn is at his best when he waxes nostalgic about “Massive Nights” spent with his friends or the evenings at the “Party Pit,” a local drinking spot. There’s a saying that goes, “nothing good happens after midnight,” but for the Hold Steady, it seems as if everything happens after midnight – good and bad – and that’s just they way they like it.
America is a rollicking album, with big guitars that would make Angus Young a proud pappy, but the album does slow down twice to take a breather. On “First Night,” Finn sings about Charlemagne, Gideon, and Holly – three recurring characters in Finn’s stories – over some gorgeous piano and strings. “Citrus” is an acoustic number where Finn compares young lovers to Jesus and street corner dealers to Judas.
But one of the best songs on the album is the closer, “Southtown Girls,” which describes the pros and cons of dating a girl from the wrong side of town. It’s got a terrific chorus – “Southtown girls won’t blow you away / But you know that they’ll stay” – that manages to dig in on the first listen. Then, about two and a half minutes in, Kubler provides a blistering guitar solo, which fades out just as a harmonica solo begins. It’s a deft transition that encapsulates the band’s sound – how often do you hear guitar and harmonica solos these days? That’s the thing about this band; their music seems oddly familiar, but completely fresh. Boys and Girls in America is the Hold Steady’s best work to date, and is quite possibly the album of the year.