By: Dennis Cook
It's refreshing to find a band that loves rock 'n' roll as a pure thing. No jazz-rock, avant-rock, whatever-rock, The Hold Steady grasp onto Chuck Berry's offspring like it was the true gospel church - the one way to save their heathen souls and the only calling worth having. Sure, there's still plenty of punk echoes on Stay Positive (released July 14 on Vagrant Records), but in much the same way The Who are considered the fathers of punk rock (The Sex Pistols did cover "Substitute"), The Hold Steady maintain the attitude but marry it to heavyweight chops and songwriting. Their fourth album in four years presents a band arriving at a new, confident creative plateau, a vantage point where their tales of awkward human foibles and irrational joys can be heard far and wide.
Not a lot has changed since 2006's Boys and Girls In America except some well-chosen refinements and a general bolstering of their musical muscle. Stay Positive has the oomph and audience gathering bravado of Cheap Tricks' Heaven Tonight, E.L.O.'s Face The Music and yes, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's Born To Run. However, it's not the oft-cited Boss that most informs their music, despite a critic's chorus that screams it so. The Hold Steady surely love Bruce but they've got equal affection for Bob Mould, Paul Westerberg and other dirty face foot soldiers that hauled punk into deeper territory, making Dylan writhe with Sid Vicious on some new upper drug. Stay Positive, a bolt of bright hope that doesn't attempt to disguise the stormy weather that birthed its light, is a swirl of Blood On The Tracks and Candy Apple Grey, "Two Tickets To Paradise" and "Holidays In The Sun." It never shies away from being hooky, sometimes ridiculously so, which adds even greater weight to heartbreakers like "Lord, I'm Discouraged" when the come around.
Can't you hear her?
She's that sweet missing songbird when the choir sings on Sunday
I'm almost busted
But I bought back the jewelry she sold
I come to your altar
And then there's just nothing
She keeps insisting
The sutures and bruises are none of my business
While a little less raunchy than Separation Sunday (2005) or Almost Killed Me (2004) and less jokey than Boys and Girls (there's no "Chillout Tent" here), it more than makes up for it with creeping emotional density. The many long nights and rails of rough, bathtub cooked speed have begun to catch up with the characters in Craig Finn's stories, and hindsight is a powerful bitch when that happens. Instead of the "clean up your act" proselytizing one usually finds in such situations, Finn keeps it real (and not in the cliché ridden meaning of the term). These people will still take a drink (or five) and lose a night to chemical revelry from time to time, and the red-eyed mornings take a greater toll now but at least the choices are conscious ones. They're just looking for release, connection and enlightenment, and like most folks they snatch at them like hungry kids. Fighting for signs of life between time clock punches and idiot relationship snafus, the populace of their song world feels consistently damaged, lived in, determined. Honest listeners who've matured in the modern era will recognize a lot of themselves on Stay Positive, and if you don't flinch there's much to be gleaned from these fantastic refractions.
The Hold Steady is currently on tour behind this album. Check out their upcoming live dates here
Here's a funny lil' thang the band did with comedian Andy Kindler on Late Night With David Letterman.
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