The Hold Steady Stay Positive(Vagrant) Buy it from Insound
Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose
- Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr
Sometimes, or maybe usually, a band’s wise career move doesn’t coincide with advancement in stylistic development. Growth means taking chances which can alienate people and is probably not a recommended path for a band on the cusp of success outside the confines of Indieworld. All the elements for The Hold Steady to break through have been firmly in place for a couple of albums now. Rousing songs about kids getting high, having sex, falling in and out of love, coupled with a live show and sound modeled on the one that landed Springsteen on the cover of Time and Newsweek in the same week back in 1975, have been standard Steady fare for a few years and have brought them to this point. Relentless, and I do mean relentless, touring has helped spread the word and so the final piece in the puzzle was to release their Born to Run and ride the wave. Well, Craig Finn, handsome devil that he is, is unlikely to appear staring out from the cover of U.S. News and World Report anytime soon, not just because that would be ridiculous, but because Stay Positive isn’t the risky, grand statement that BTR was. People are defined by the choices they make, and the Hold Steady chose to not mess with a winning formula, and from a careerist perspective it was the smartest thing they could have done.
Guys like me who have been following them for a while are bound to feel a tinge of ennui hearing the same guitar tones, the same piano flourishes, hell, the same LINES again and again, but the band does rock and Finn is a deft enough lyricist to pull it off. He’s always quick with a razor sharp turn of phrase like “One boy calls while the other texts/she’s got boys on board and boys on deck”, from Magazines. But Finn, again like Springsteen, is getting beyond the party time atmosphere of his earlier work by following the same cast of characters as they mature along with him. The names may have changed, but the hoodrats are now addicted to drugs (Lord, I’m Discouraged) and are getting nostalgic (Joke About Jamaica). I guess you start looking back when you have nothing to look forward to. They also pull off one of the better songs about touring (Sequestered in Memphis) in which Finn tries to excuse a random encounter with a groupie by pleading “I went there on business”. Everywhere, despite his efforts to “stay positive”, the scene seems to be crumbling around him. I don’t know what’s going to happen when these people all grow up and get jobs, but I’d count on Finn to make it interesting. “There’s gonna come a time”, he likes to say, and it sounds like the time has come.
This is the band’s most mature and consistent record yet. What they lack in diversity they make up for with wit, verve and nonstop energy.23 July, 2008 - 14:43 — Alan Shulman