Review Summary: Near masterpiece from a band that is somehow much more than the some of their parts
The thing about The Hold Steady is that they really, really shouldn’t be this good. No matter how clever Craig Finn’s lyrics may be, they’re still all about the exact same thing (tight character sketches of teenage addicts, drifters, and slackers.) And the band itself never turns out songs that are anything but a sludgy amalgam of Bruce Springsteen and the Replacements. The thing is, the Hold Steady really are that
good. Good enough to receive unanimously glowing reviews and top year end lists with this album while still not seeming overrated. There’s just something about the band’s songs that take on another life that their simple arrangements don’t suggest. Part of it is Finn’s fantastic, rapid fire lyrics (“parking lot poems” as they have been described) delivered in a sharp speak-sing style and a thick Midwestern accent. The other part is that their ability to turn even the simplest of riffs into a sharp intro or a catchy hook. Boys and Girls in America
isn’t much of a departure from their past two records, but it’s the culmination of them. The band stick to simple rock ‘n roll guns, so much so that you’d never guess that keyboardist Franz Nicolay is a member of circus punks World/Inferno Friendship Society, but it doesn’t really matter, their songs are so good.
Kicking off with the Springsteenian “Stuck Between Stations”, the band lay all their tricks on the table: catchy guitar riffs, E Street Band piano lines, noisy soloing and brilliant lyrics. It’s a style that permeates tracks like “Hot Soft Light” which rides a huge powerchord riff and slick wah riffs from lead guitarist Tad Kubler as Craig spins tales of prescription pills that make old heavy metal songs sound “stony and adorable.” Elseware, Finn underpins seemingly happy characters with depression, as on “Chips Ahoy” with lyrics like “Some nights the painkillers make the pain even worse” and an aching reframe of “How I’m supposed to know that you’re high if you won’t let me touch you"/How I’m supposed to know that you’re high if you won’t even dance” as the band belt out a supremely catchy chorus of “whoas.” Or on the perfect party rocker “Massive Nights” where a simple tail of fratboy excess ends with a closing line of “she had a gun to her mouth/she was shooting up at her dreams/when the chaperone said we had been crowned king and queen.”
Perhaps the best thing you can say about Boys and Girls
is that it does the impossible: it makes a power ballad good. Not just good but excellent. The best track on the CD, “First Night”, boasts a melodic piano lead and heartfelt chorus, but several minutes into the song it takes a turn that no standard power ballad would. A rhythmic piano line takes over and slowly builds to a crushing coda, replete with Finn snarling “Don’t bother talking to the guys/with the hot soft eyes/you know they’re already taken/don’t even speak to those sequence and beats boys/when they kiss they spit white noise.” Its moments like these that make Boys and Girls in America
so good. The shimmering guitars of “Party Pit” could be U2, until it builds into ending reframe of “gonna walk around/gonna walk around/gonna walk around and drink” that could only be, well, The Hold Steady. Finn has the rare gift to make lyrics like that sound utterly brilliant, which demonstrates on tracks like “You Can Make Him Like You” which benefits from an irresistible chorus to back Finn’s story of the dangers of getting high alone or the creepy addicts that populate “Chillout Tent.” His lyrics are populated by sardonic lines like “He’d been to school but never finished/he’d been to jail but never prison.”
No, Boys and Girls In America
never really moves past its simple roots. There is no speedy drummer who underpins the songs rhythms and takes them to no heights, nor is there a dynamic lead guitarist who plays circles around the band. If you’re looking for some secret to the Hold Steady’s success, you won’t find one because, frankly, it doesn't exist. For whatever reason Craig Finn and co.’s songs are just incredibly good. So listeners, don’t worry: a three powerchord riff can still make a great riff, and sex drugs and rock ‘n roll can still be the topic of great lyrics.
Stuck Between Stations
Hot Soft Light
You Can Make Him Like You