Review Summary: An album for a lazy (separation) Sunday won’t please the boys and girls in America.
It’s easy to like the Hold Steady. Hell, it’s even easy to want
to like the Hold Steady. They even sound good on paper- a no-frills quintet who play ballsy modern heartland rock, flaunting an erratic and entertaining frontman in Craig Finn, with a distinctive Sprechgesang style that falls somewhere in-between Randy Newman and a less flamboyant Fred Schneider. Since 2004, they’ve shown a consistent work effort and some exceptional musical work along the way, notably the loose concept record Separation Sunday
and the E Street drive of its follow-up, Boys and Girls in America
. On their fourth record, however, we find the Hold Steady running out of ideas, and offering up a slow burner of an album. Not in the rewarding sense, however- slow burning to the point that it fizzles out, despite their best efforts to set the album aflame.
Many critics laud the Hold Steady for being the “thinking man’s bar band”. It’s a unique title, that goes hand in hand with their usually clever style of rock music. The mentality for the band here, thus, is if their approach to music has worked to its best effect in the past, why change that now? Unfortunately, this turns out to be a bad move.
After three albums- already not helped by the 2004/05/06 release dates- the band would have to pull off something remarkable to prove they were more than a one trick pony. Herein lies Stay Positive
’s problem- there are no outstanding tracks, no shining moments or songs where it all just comes together musically. Christ, there isn’t even a “Little Hoodrat Friend” moment. Stay Positive
, for a large part of its length, is uninteresting and skip-worthy. The usually vibrant storytelling lyrics are flat and tail-chasing, the music backing them a drizzly, underwhelming jam session with little to no coherent display of above average musicianship that the band have proven they are indeed capable of.
Mercifully, it’s not all bad. “Magazines”, for example, has a catchy doubled-up chorus and a solid rhythmic backbone, whilst “Constructive Summer” is a simplistic but exciting beginning to the album, with the gang vocal yelp for “this summer”- in addition to Craig Finn’s boasting of his friends’ favourite drinks in a laidback, charming drawl- a modern summation of California dreaming. “Both Crosses” presents the biggest metamorphosis of the Hold Steady sound, and is subesquently as the best song here. With a swaying Middle Eastern vibe, folksy leanings (more Yusuf Islam than Cat Stevens) and sliding open D acoustic guitar, we find Finn waxing Biblical in an undercurrent of sombre, longing vocals- arguably his best performance throughout the whole record.
Even in the face of a potentially old-hat sound, kudos must go to the band for their attempts to keep it fresh and to try new things. Keyboardist/professional Mario Brother impersonator Franz Nicolay gets to try out some new instruments and ideas-“One for the Cutters” features some interesting use of the harpsichord, and its successor “Navy Sheets” highlights a fun synth hook. Lead guitarist Tad Kubler also gets a fleeting but nevertheless wailing solo (“Lord, I’m Discouraged”) and some talkbox action (“Joke About Jamaica”- Kubler Comes Alive
, maybe?). Elsewhere, Craig Finn experiments with his voice (he has reportedly started taking singing lessons), with mixed results. In the vein of the album’s title, let’s try and stay positive- the slightly tuneful singalong chorus of “Sequestered in Memphis” is one of the best hooks the band have put their names to, and his delivery on the album is certainly, at the very least, an attempted change from his vocal norm. Conversely, he also tries his hand at drunkenly walking a tightrope of spoken word and rap on the title track, making it one of his most irritating rants on record yet. Not even a catchy wordless hook in the spirit of “Chips Ahoy!” can save this one.
Sadly, these brief musical progressions alone are not enough to stop the songs themselves from being bland and desperate for more.
At the end of the day, Stay Positive
isn’t the worst album of 2008 by any means. Not even the most disappointing. It is, however, far and away the most frustrating record released thus far. The Hold Steady are in a hell of a predicament in the fact they have lost direction, the result being a record that is two steps backward, one step forward and a slight trip of the shoelaces to the left.
They’re still the same bar band- just maybe not the “thinking man’s” variety anymore.
Stay Positive was streamed on the Hold Steady's MySpace profile from June 9 to June 15. It is currently available on iTunes and will be physically available in the United States as of next Monday.