Monday, October 20, 2008

Stay Positive - The Hold Steady (Autumn Records 2008)

Stay Positive

The Hold Steady
Vagrant Records.

SCQ Rating: 75%

I recall sitting in my ceramic-tiled bachelor apartment, killing the pre-dawn hours away till I was tired enough to sleep, and discovering The Hold Steady. As an exclusive member of a West-end skeleton crew who tore down boxes, stocked shelves and rarely caught daylight, their bar-band brew of heavy guitar riffs, shimmering piano and disaffected but clever lyrics fueled the midnight hours of my nights-off. That album, Boys and Girls in America, became SCQ’s #4 record of 2006 and was a regular party album through the fall. Returning with volume and ideas to spare, Stay Positive is increasingly assorted yet cautiously self-conscious; a record aware of its big shoes to fill.

Looking back, Boys and Girls in America was streamlined in several aspects: Craig Finn’s lyrical characters were edited or omitted, album-encompassing narratives were discarded in favour of general themes, and songs behaved like independent states, united in principle but disconnected from any strict doctrine. That record’s priorities – jaded youth, bad decisions, neglected religion, getting drunk/high – remain in abundance on Stay Positive, a record that narrates a ton of misadventures plus a murder or two. The opening couplet, ‘Construction Summer’ and ‘Sequestered in Memphis’, feel like the confetti-sprayed celebrations of old, but the Minneapolis boys quickly shift gears, offering the cabaret-fables of ‘One for the Cutters’ or the dirt-kicking, Zeppelin III chords of ‘Both Crosses’. Marking this album as moodier than its predecessor, these tracks effectively slow down that E-Street pulse without forsaking listener-interest or betraying their classic-rock rep. If Boys and Girls in America was a party mix-tape, Stay Positive should ideally soundtrack the morning and weekdays after.

The Hold Steady still rock though, sometimes heavier than we remembered like on the cutting riff of ‘Yeah Sapphire’ or ‘Slapped Actress’s kick-ass climax where the band surrenders to a sole piano, as Finn reflects “sometimes actresses get slapped, sometimes fake fights turn out bad”, before guitars snap back into action and a rising choir carries the album to sleep. The grit of these songs earn Stay Positive its own identity but occasionally draw lackluster comparisons: ‘Lord I’m Discouraged’ is a similar yet less emotive centerpiece than ‘First Night’ was, while nothing here holds a torch to the cascading momentum of ‘You Can Make Him Like You’.

In any case, the Hold Steady should be commended for branching out; Finn’s vocals are now full-on singing, sporadically sounding identical to the Headstones’ Hugh Dillon, while the band sounds as comfortable as ever. Pushing their signature sound into new bar-booths and alleyways, Stay Positive still captures the possibility of a great night out. However, it lacks some of the innocence and tension that made each dance or drink the start of a great story or the end of the world.

No comments: