The Hold Steady
I believe The Hold Steady is the band we've been needing, just like The Clash was in the 70's, Guns 'N' Roses was in the 80's, Fugazi was in the 90's, Drive-By Truckers has been for this decade. All of those groups took up the musical frameworks into which they were born and transcended them; what the Clash did with/for punk, The Hold Steady did with the unlikely candidate of emo - they made it convulsive, funny, populist, drunk, confused and thought-provoking. Their music is an exalter of the scant human traits that manage to still cling onto our plastic husks. The Hold Steady feel it and sing it. People say they are too talky, I say those people are afraid someone is going to tell them something they don't want to hear. Too Springsteen-y? We Americans need Bruce Springsteen. He's the last Atlas holding the roof of the garage up as we sit in circles around his workboots, feeling each other up between bong hits in the dark, and his shoulders are getting tired.
Main Holder of things Steady Craig Finn has an anachronistic take on songwriting - he actually says things, and makes the rhymes work. Their singalong nature is readily admitted in their thesis statement "Constructive Summers" that taps the last drops of the kegs left floating by Hüsker Dü, drunkenly climbing the water tower to the line Let this be my annual reminder that we can all be something bigger. It's corny as hell, tossing in a cringe-inducing Let's raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer, I think he was our only decent teacher, but it bears reminding that St. Joe Strummer could get pretty corny as well, because he, like The Hold Steady, was willing to let things fly in the name of expressing one's heart.
"Sequestered in Memphis" is a simply a great fucking song, one that has eclipsed every other song I've heard this year. I won't pick out lines, because I'd have to go through each one, so let me say that Franz Nicolay's brilliant flourishes underscores the fact that rock 'n' roll was invented on the piano.
The only fault I had with Stay Positive is that it didn't floor me immediately like Boys and Girls and Separation Sunday did. The harpsichords on "One for the Cutters," the boorish crassness of the chorus over some straight-lifted classic rock moves on "Navy Sheets" had me thinking they had traded meth for meta. I wanted Charlemagne the drug dealer and Holly seeing Jesus in her hospital room and the girl from "Chips Ahoy." But a careful listen found them hiding unnamed in the chapel of "Lord, I'm Discouraged" closing with a guitar arpeggio that dares rival that in Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" before collapsing into strummed echo. The Hold Steady use their Catholicism the way they use countless drugged out weekends and stays in the ICU - as places put their launch pads.
The most powerful song on the record is their greatest stylistic departure. "Both Crosses" rolls out in mock Western heat lightning, not entirely unlike Bon Jovi's "Wanted Dead or Alive" which is seeing a second life as the theme for the HD workingman's porn The Deadliest Catch, but instead of taking the first turn into anthemic bombast, they scratch the dust beneath their feet, revealing the roots and bugs wriggling in the damp murk. Banjos and vibes and even a goddamn singing saw conspire on this muted infernal hoedown as the female protagonist stands at the windswept crossroads, melding her carnality and faith - Baby, let's transverberate - one of countless, if I may, crucial decisions a girl has to face.
Fortunately, that track is followed by the answer to the opening song's questions. "Stay Positive" is the now putting a concerned hand on the shoulder of the past.
There's gonna come a
time when the scene'll seem less sunny,
it'll probably get druggy and the kids'll seem too skinny.
There's gonna come a time when she's gonna have to go
with the one who's gonna get her the highest
The last line is a quote from "Hornets! Hornets!" from Separation Sunday, and there are plenty of quotes throughout it, culminating in the only possible solution: we gotta stay positive. The songs that follow have their merits, a knuckledheaded genius hook of magazines and daddy issues, I hope you'll still let me kiss you on "Magazines" that is only slightly derailed by a guest appearance by that raspy guy from Lucero, the dreamy noir reference-salad of "Joke about Jamaica" housing the brilliant bar-desperado observation the new girls are coming up like some white unopened flowers, and "Slapped Actress" rounds the bend like the last run of the rock 'n' roll locomotive, but it's you gotta stay positive that hangs in my mind, like the smoke left from fireworks; so simple, too simple even, but impeccably placed.
And maybe I'm now that guy who only sees forests while the kids are busy carving their names on trees before climbing to the high limbs with thoughts of jumping off, and realizing that feeling never goes away, and life never gets easier dammit, it only gets more tedious - you work at the mill until you die, just like they said on the opening number - and I want to lean a ladder against the water tower and climb up and drink and talk, and still want to see the world up there as being ripe with opportunity.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com