Tuesday, January 2, 2007
The Hold Steady - Boys and Girls In America
I considered beginning this review of The Hold Steady's new album Boys and Girls In America by proclaiming it the best album of 2006. I ultimately held back because I have only just been introduced to the tunes and have not had ample time to rationally consider whether this is truly the case. Additionally, it was just too arrogant to cut my teeth in the blogging world with such a brash statement. So, with uncharacteristic reservation, let me simply state that this is a superb album.
The Hold Steady rocks with a throwback vibe, bringing Clash-like energy and attitude to an album which blazes through an astonishing 40 minutes and 11 seconds that leaves you worn out in the most fulfilling kind of way. Standing out above the music, which is more than commendable, is the front man, Craig Finn. Hailing from Minneapolis, a city near and dear to the heart of our own Little Dynamite, Finn formed The Hold Steady in Brooklyn in 2000. Besides being the founding father of the group, Finn is the heart and soul of the band's sound.
Craig Finn has the creative advantage shared by some of the greatest artists from Leonardo Da Vinci to Bruce Springsteen of being raised a Catholic, and the theme of salvation and the images of the Church weave through his lyrics with genuine poignancy. In fact it would seem his songs are almost obsessed with salvation, which is a theme continued from (though to a lesser degree) their debut album Separation Sunday. Craig Finn is the American Shane MacGowan (of Pogues glory) and I can't get enough of his biting lyrics sung with such unmistakable conviction and his edgy, original voice.
As long as I am tying Finn and The Hold Steady to their musical predecessors it is impossible to ignore comparing them to the greatest of American songwriters, Bruce Springsteen and his E. Street Band. The Hold Steady introduces a similar, recurring, cast of characters caught up in the seedy underground of our country's culture. Instead of such characters as Wild Billy and his friend G-man, on Boys and Girls In America we get a glimpse of Charlemagne and Gideon, two intriguing lowlifes, the latter of whom seems to be perpetually making pipes out of Pringles cans.
At it's core, this is an album which delves into the wild, scattered party scene of the young and confused, together with the drugs, sex and desperate grasps at love or anything else potentially meaningful. Everything from the drugs that the characters are "powered up" on to the religious images of Finn's youth is looked to as a source of hope in their downwardly spirally lives. Perhaps one of the most powerful moments of the album comes at the end of track 3, Hot Soft Light, when after the character in question has gone through every sort of type of high (from "blotto" to "blacked out" to "cracked out" to "caved in") he finds himself in the final climactic moments screaming "there's a cross, there's a cross, there's a cross, there's a cross, and in the center there is a hot, soft light."
Boys and Girls In America does not get bogged down in the dead-end party scene, however, though it's subjects may. Instead, Finn acts as a sort of noble savage from that frontier, pointing our attention to the universal truths of his music, hitting on one of the most heartbreaking and essential messages of artistic expression--that impossibility of holding on to the moments of clarity, the moments that should last. As Adam Duritz laments: "I can't remember all the times I tried to tell myself to hold on to these moments as they last."
In the same way, Craig Finn notes that "we can't get as high as we got on that first night." The Hold Steady's album is a fascinating work, and it will rock its message and its passion all the way home. I am thrilled to have gone along for the ride. This one comes with my highest recommendation.
Here's the track mentioned earlier - Hot Soft Light:
And here's one of my favorites from The Pogues (with Shane MacGowan) from the album Rum Sodomy and the Lash: