Review Summary: What the perfect rock album sounds like.
There are several quintessential images that arise when pondering the concept of Americana Rock n Roll. Sprawling narratives about the nostalgic, vicarious, and raging glory of youth are at the forefront. Visions of driving down a deserted highway towards a mountain, or stepping into a sparkling field are essential metaphors if you are Brandon Flowers circa “Sam’s Town” era. The Boss himself was the master, blending ingenious narratives of countryside nostalgia with glorious tales of the struggles of being a youthful saint in the city, or anything resembling a Suburban sprawl for that matter. Contemporary Paul Westerberg was also an astute spokesman for character driven tales of tawdry youth, detailing the troubles of “Alex Chilton” and all of the “Bastards of Young.” At the forefront, the best Americana rock is about effective narration and detailed character development that the youth of America can relate to, not neglecting the barebones musical requirement of driving guitar, flourishing piano, and encapsulating the sensation of driving towards the sunset at 100 mph, metaphor or not. When studying The Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, it becomes exceedingly obvious he worshipped at the altar of Springsteen and the Replacements, and was clearly paying attention to the generational anthems that doubled as the artist's ultimate messages.
By 2006, the Hold Steady had given America a small taste of what fist pumping Rock with brains sounded like. Their first two albums, “Almost Killed Me” and “Separation Sunday,” wove bombastic tales of youthful revelry steadied by bar drenched back to basics riffage, delivered with a not even attempted veiled dose of lyrical sarcasm. The latter of the two was exceedingly mature from both a lyrical and musical standpoint, incorporating a high minded concept of religion coinciding with tales of getting screwed by soccer players down by the river. At this point Finn and company were quickly climbing the ladder to musical euphoria, and they garnished plenty of critical acclaim to provide that extra push. While Finn’s conceptual storytelling grew, the band was evolving from slinging loads of straight guitar riffs to hinting at something much bigger. The potential was there, but it hadn’t been fully realized yet. This would change dramatically on their next release, 2006’s ‘Boys and Girls in America.”
The book on “Boys in Girls in America” is the apex and culmination of Finn’s narrative ability colliding with a band fully sharpening their musical sensibilities. Although the record is not a conceptual metaphor of religion or surviving the 80’s, the glorifying theme of “the kids are sometimes alright, sometimes they’re not, but they sure like to party” is present as always. Like their other two records, the narratives are exploding with witty barbs: “she was a really cool kisser but she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian/she was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend,” obscure pop culture references (Sal Paradise, Izzy Stradlin, Screaming for Vengeance), and tales of the seedy underbelly of suburban and young America. The difference, and the determining factor that makes this the Hold Steady’s greatest effort, is this time around the songwriting chops are on par with Finn’s heroes. Amid a firestorm of stadium sized choruses, E-Street piano flourishes, Jurassic hooks, and a newfound explosion of melody, the Hold Steady deliver a clinic on what Rock n Roll is supposed to sound like, ultimately crafting an immediately gripping atmosphere that gives the album a “Born to Run of the 21st” Century” feel. The sound is that big, and after one listen, it becomes immediately apparent that the album itself is that good.
The immediacy of the record is made abundantly clear from the outset. The band’s journey through Sprinsteenien, Americana revelry explodes with fury the very second E-Street aping “Stuck Between Stations” reveals its massive riff and layered piano dustings. Their most famous track, the witty banter: “He said I’ve surrounded myself with doctors and deep thinkers/But big heads with soft bodies make for lousy lovers,” and white hot hooks permeating “Stuck Between Stations” is a delicious taste of what the album has in store. The energy blasting from first single “Chips Ahoy” is almost unmatched in the genre, with Finn waxing poetic about horse racing, drug use, and exploitive sex amid a crunchy riff that erupts into an overly huge “all dudes together” chorus chant. “Hot Soft Light” recalls images of Thin Lizzy in their prime, with Finn bragging about his Phil Lynott like party escapades: “I've been straight since the Cinco de Mayo/before that I was blotto/I was blacked out/ I was cracked out/I was caved in/you should have seen all these portals that I’ve powered up in.” Meanwhile, the youthful villains who “make love to the girls in the wrapped up wrists” in “Same Kooks” are almost drowned out by a huge rock boogie sound that would have been at home on AC/DC’s “Let There Be Rock.”
Amid the ferocious energy that defines the album as a whole, the band is smart enough to change pace a few times. When the energy is tempered on the ballad “First Night,” a highly nostalgic portrayal of ex-lovers; “on that first night/when she was golden with floor light and beer/she slept like she'd never been scared” it is utterly redeemed as the track builds to a massive, piano driven coda that coincides with a striking summation of yearning youth: “when they kiss they spit white noise.” While the young lovers are confident in “First Night,” the acoustically tender and lyrically brilliant “Citrus” portrays a much more realistic painting of their expected failure, served up with a heavy dose of religious symbology: “I see Judas in the hard eyes of the boys who worked in the corners/I feel Jesus in the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers/lost in fog and love and faith was fear/ I've had kisses that make Judas seem sincere.” Although Finn is clearly painting a picture of how kids don’t know how to bang properly, the sound is more than sincere as the storyteller has almost certainly experienced this humiliation. The final, gripping tale of awkward young hookups is seen on the experimental “Chill Out Tent,” where Finn summarizes the overpowering need for carnal ecstasy and getting mind blowingly wasted at a rock show that almost every teenager in America has: “the kids came from miles around to get messed up on the music/and she drove down from Boden with a carload of girlfriends/to meet some boys and maybe eat some mushrooms.” Riding a girl guy tradeoff chorus where the protagonists awkwardly hook up and smoke cigarettes, “Chillout Tent” is one of the Hold Steady’s stronger efforts from a lyrical and originality standpoint.
Aside from the overwhelmingly strong musicianship, razor sharp hooks, and ingenious lyrical ponderings, the greatest redeeming factor of “Boys and Girls in America” is it conjures up specific memories from the listener’s life. Finn’s greatest asset is his ability to craft memorable stories that are entirely relatable. Over the course of every Hold Steady album Finn has proven to be a soothsayer, a straight from the gut spokesman for every unique desire, failure, and expected experience of American youth. When he waxes about driving around the city in vain to score with bar skanks on “Southtown Girls,” you feel you’ve been in the car with him. When Finn talks about having “Massive Nights” at the prom: “the guys were feeling good about their liquor run/the girls were kind of flirting with the setting sun/we all kind of fumbled thru the jitterbug/we were all powered up on some new upper drug,” you realize you probably at some point begged someone to buy booze for you to impress a few chicks, and as the track plays along the listener can’t help but smile with a knowing nod. The enormous “Party Pit” turns into the greatest drinking song ever, and as Finn passionately bellows “Gonna walk around and drink some more/gonna walk around and drink,” a heaping dose of rock led nostalgia makes the listener realize they just stepped back into the greatest frat party of their lives. The culmination of Finn’s ability to suck the listener in, and the most relatable narrative on the album is found on the unbelievably catchy “You Can Make Him Like You,” a face melting portrayal of malicious women who wittingly obliterate and use up unknowing nice guys. The largest hook anyone can contrive rides along perfectly with a narrative about the kind of woman everybody has known at some point “You don’t have to deal with the dealers/let your boyfriend deal with the dealers/it only gets inconvenient when you wanna get high alone,” and when Finn removes his tongue from his cheek long enough to sarcastically lament “There’s always other boys/there’s always other boyfriends/there’s always other boys and you can make him like you” one can’t help but remember the time they were used or duped this badly. Its tales like this, delivered with an unquestioned amount of legitimacy and sincerity, that transcends Finn as a quasi spokesman for both the boys and girls of America.
As it turns out, The Hold Steady’s version of Americana rock mastery has much more to do with growing up in the city than driving with windswept hair through epic highways. Regardless of the method of Americana incorporated, the ferocious energy and glistening storytelling of “Boys and Girls in America” is the 21st Century soundtrack to youthful lives. The lesson is while today’s young often fall prey to their own depravity and debauchery, most find their greatest redemption when they are unashamed to rock. On “Boys and Girls in America,” The Hold Steady captured this vast array of twisting emotions with a big, fat stamp of fist raising rock, and cemented an astonishing album that may be every bit as good as anything the sages they so unashamedly worship have come up with.