Music Reviews
Boys and Girls in America

The Hold Steady Boys and Girls in America

(Vagrant) Rating - 9/10

Like Jack Kerouac, Craig Finn is in love with the mad ones. He's in love with the depravity and debauchery of The American Youth, with its aimless climb toward middle-management and modestly priced condos and with the priceless years between youthful innocence and the bursting bubble of young adulthood.

And like Kerouac, Finn has sympathy for the mad ones. Kerouac's Sal Paradise and Dean Moriarty were outcasts no one else bothered to care about; Finn's Minnesota teenagers spend most of their time getting high or getting drunk or getting high and drunk.

Just as the mad ones are the focal point of Kerouac's genius, seminal On the Road, they are also the focus of The Hold Steady's burgeoning classic, Boys and Girls in America.

These aren't light comparisons. On the Road defined the most important rock and roll generation - it's first - with outlaw imagery and style. Kerouac struck a nerve with a generation of influential artists and musicians who each struck nerves with the generations that followed. The accolades are daunting, but the people who were spreading the hype were even more so.

Bob Dylan: "I read On the Road in maybe 1959. It changed my life like it changed everyone else's."

So, yeah, these aren't light comparisons.

Boys and Girls in America is no On the Road, but Finn comes closer to capturing Kerouac's outlaw spirit than most bands that have strayed into this territory. Like Bruce Springsteen, Finn isn't giving us saints and blessings, he's giving us sinners and tragedies.

He sets the tone early on Stuck Between Stations.

"There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right/Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together/Sucking off each other at the demonstrations/making sure their makeup's straight/crushing one another with collossal expectations/dependent, undisciplined, sleeping late."

Stuck Between Stations is the starting gun that defines the mood and tone that propels the album to greatness and glory. But the real joy is in Finn's breathless delivery. More Beat Poet than Punk Springsteen, Finn bounces from word to word like a man on a mission. He's licensed to kill - to slay you with his pen - to make you feel, dammit.

Throughout this record, Finn crafts characters' stories we care about - a drugged-up couple of kids at a festival who make out in the medical tent, Holly from Separation Sunday fame, a lovelorn couple who despite all it's winnings at the track just can't find the happiness they so madly desire.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the band. This is a crack unit. Tightly wound and disciplined from all those years touring as "America's Best Bar Band," The Hold Steady is bursting with flavor, inflection and raw emotion.

Perhaps the biggest difference between Boys and Girls in America and Separation Sunday, the band's second LP, is the dominating presence of Franz Nicolay's keyboards. He's all over this one, whether it's crafting the perfect counter-melody on First Night or mimicking Finn's vocal part on Chillout Tent. He infuses the band's pub rock with nuance unheard of among The Hold Steady's contemporaries.

Where Separation Sunday lacked depth, The Hold Steady's latest record is bursting with melody and harmony. Gorgeous keyboards and seductive slide guitar parts balance the band's mad power-chord assault. Boys and Girls in America is a fine record; one that will grab, shake and dominate your life - one of those rare records that pleases the intellectual expectations of hipsters and the emotional demand of blue-collar America.

Both immediate and a grower, Boys and Girls in America stands tall as The Hold Steady's masterwork - full of grace and gritty charm, full heartbreak and raw emotion. You're mad to turn this one away.