The Hold Steady's ascent and eventual breakthrough with 2006's Boys & Girls in America
was never pre-ordained. If anything they did it without the tastemakers' consent. Their shtick is old-fashioned through and through, beginning with Thin Lizzy and ending with Bruce Springsteen, performed by men advanced enough to have experienced those touchstones first or second hand. And look at them--not exactly The Strokes, are they? But it was precisely their enthusiastic unoriginality, the fact that the clichés were piled on so thick and so fast, that they triumphed. And placed next to that unapologetically feel good record, that Stay Positive
sounds so immediately brighter and more muscular is undoubtedly a great sign. Production is really cranked up--see the horns wedged into "Sequestered in Memphis", the REM mandolin texturing of "Both Crosses" and the surprising harpsichord flagrancy of "One for the Cutters". They're clearly determined to not be so easily pegged this time around, though admittedly they never exactly go that far off-piste. "Our songs are sing-along songs," announced Craig Finn semi-helpfully, and though the spirit is right, with such a conversational lyrical style that is rarely the case. It's more about the rock gestures and knowing when to punch the air. And there are instances aplenty, from the Pete Townsend-esque windmill power-chords in "Constructive Summer", to the overblown solo in "Lord I'm Discouraged" that is so "November Rain" it's practically going through Stephanie Seymour's trash (those not watching MTV in the mid-90s, hit Youtube). --James Berry
There's something reassuring and satisfying about mature, confident rock, played by musicians who know their instruments and have seen a few of life's ups and downs. More an acquired adult taste than the easy appeal of nursery food, there's a grown-up flavour to The Hold Steady's latest set; these guys have circled the block once or twice in their time, and their girlfriends have wrinkles, chronic complaints and a tendency to drink too much. Their love is aged and their stories are dusty and crusted, but Stay Positive tastes all the better for it.
The band's skill and mutual understanding allows them to play around with awkward time signatures and stumbling rhythms; it creates a richer rock 'n' roll stew, but the recipe doesn't always come out right. At times it all gets a bit Pere Ubu and might be liable to scare off the more close-eared listener. But in the main, whether they're kicking straight-up four to the floor, or messing with an old baroque dance step, they generally come out on top.
Craig Finn's vocals are The Hold Steady's most easily recognised feature, and tower above the maelstrom of music swirling around them. Finn declaims bitter truths and prophecies in his lyrics, firing out slogans and catchy choruses alike with the same air of unsurprised anger, while the band goes a little bit E Street Band (on the title track) or Husker Du (on Magazines) as the mood takes them. --Al Spicer
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