Music Reviews
Thrashing Thru the Passion

The Hold Steady Thrashing Thru the Passion

(Frenchkiss Records) Rating - 6/10

Despite a five-year absence, it only takes a few seconds for The Hold Steady to fill us in on a new cast of deadbeats who can't seem to get their way. That brief time is just enough for the Brooklyn bar band staple, led by knowing wordsmith Craig Finn, to revere the everyman. Opening with a familiar guitar chug, album opener Denver Haircut remains true to the band's sound, where Finn puts the focus around the unfortunate circumstances of a wandering punk as his band backs him with a triumphant performance.

It's not as if Finn hasn't been longing to get back into writing stories. After the release of their last effort as a band, 2014's Teeth Dreams, he's been putting all of his efforts into a trio of solo releases, all of which allowed him to get deeper into character-driven vignettes that explored other musical travails. Even if they compliment his work with The Hold Steady, it was a necessary sabbatical—they were always a rock n' roll band first, and mid-career albums like 2008's Stay Positive and 2010's Heaven is Whenever proved that they were attempting to expand their reach from intimate bars to theater venues.

On their seventh album, Thrashing Thru the Passion, the band adapts to a different way of selling themselves, making a full-length album out of a collection of singles. The six-piece considers an alternative to following grueling album cycles, responding to more traditional industry norms by lowering the stakes. Instead of powering through limited recording sessions, half of the songs featured on Thrashing were released in fits and starts on streaming platform Bandcamp between 2017-2019. This approach allows them to not only reach directly to their fans, but also, to provide a glimpse of how they gradually rekindle their working relationship in a more organic manner.

It's certainly a healthier way for The Hold Steady to continue to make music, even it Thrashing also feels like a halfway commitment. Early singles Entitlement Crew and The Stove & the Toaster are musically consistent, where the band embellishes simple power chords over Jordan McLean and Michael Leonhart's soaring horns and temporarily absent member Franz Nicolay's nimble piano playing. Finn litters them with references within squalid environments, sharing tales, both tragic and wistful, of deep-seated distrust and the absence of old friendships with his usual forays into prose poetry. Whereas on the offbeat Star 18, guitarists Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge feed on each other's energy with subtle distortion and crunchy guitar blasts like they're a dueling Ace Frehley and Paul Stanley.

It doesn't take much effort to compartmentalize Thrashing Thru the Passion into two parts—not because the band held off from releasing Side A outside of singles Denver Haircut and You Did Good Kid, but because they sound more expansive in scope—at least subliminally. Traditional Village and Epaulets trade wicked licks and meaty instrumental sections worthy of Finn christening them as his personal E Street Band. They've never held off from writing a catchy refrain, and You Did Good Kid does meet that requirement, though it doesn't have the same reach of career highlights like Southtown Girls and Sequestered in Memphis—rather than inspire a joyous sing-a-long, expect its chorus to grate after a couple of listens.

There's more than enough material in Thrashing Thru the Passion to prove that Finn is at his storytelling best. Sometimes oblique, sometimes candid, he returns to the smart-aleck humor that has brought us a myriad of quotable lines for fifteen years—even if they don't carry the same emotional weight and refinement of his trilogy of solo albums. That's to be expected, of course, but from a musicianship standpoint, The Hold Steady comes across like they're trying to retrace their steps without fully considering the commitment it takes to recreate the homespun depth of their career peak. It's telling that even when they aim high, many of the songs on the album never seem to take flight, less dynamic and locked to a steady tempo—though returning to the crisp, unfussy production of 2005's Separation Sunday was a nice touch. Some good ol', serviceable rock ' roll always goes down easy, but with The Hold Steady, we know they're capable of so much more.