The Hold Steady

Brian Merlos
(COURTESY OF VAGRANT)

Stay Positive

Rating: 4 and a half out of 5 stars

Vagrant

The first time I ever saw the Hold Steady perform live, I watched them play on a cramped stage across the river from Brooklyn in front of an audience of rowdy teenage drunks. At the end of the band’s set, a timid fan approached the stage and handed singer-guitarist Craig Finn a fat binder. “I wrote my thesis,” the young man explained, “about how your band is the voice of our generation, and I would love for you to read it.” That scenario, in a nutshell, encompasses the life and ethos of this Brooklyn-based quintet. Described on at least one occasion as “the best bar band in America,” Craig Finn and Co. have been critically acclaimed for both their epically jam-packed storytelling and their unique mixture of classic rock elements with more contemporary alternative rock. A Twin Cities native, Finn has not forgotten his Midwestern roots and the majority of his band’s past 3 full-length albums have been crafted around a series of stories taking place across the entire continental U.S. However, no matter how far his fictionalized lyrical characters Charlemagne and “Holly” (short for “Hallelujah”) may travel, they are always happy to find a makeshift home in the upper Midwest.

Finding their niche drafting songs about drug experimentation, latent alcoholism and religious disillusionment, the Hold Steady quickly found a base of believers and their last two albums — “Separation Sunday” (2005) and “Boys and Girls in America” (2006) — found unanimous critical acclaim. With their fourth full-length release, titled “Stay Positive,” the band continues its trajectory, infusing their classic bar-jam tracks with an array of novel instruments and intriguing song arrangements. Recorded in the Tri-State area with the help of producer John Agnello, this newest release is a creative step forward for a band that is no stranger to experimentation. Never fearful of splurging on neat new gear, the band collected an assortment of new effects pedals for its newest release and it doesn’t shy away from employing more traditional instruments, including a harpsichord. Possibly one of the most noticeable additions to the Hold Steady discography are more finely-tuned vocals from singer Finn, who ditched his notoriously coarse voice – an acquired taste for new listeners to the band’s last three albums – in favor of professional voice training. Finn puts his newly-trained voice to good use on “Stay Positive,” brushing aside the bar-table choruses that were featured prominently throughout “Boys and Girls in America” in favor of showcasing his own vocals front-and-center.

The album’s opener “Constructive Summer” is a classic Hold Steady introduction, complete with fast-paced guitar riffs and voracious keyboard notes from band member Franz Nicolay. The song “raise(s) a toast to Saint Joe Strummer” as it laments long-gone summer days spent drinking whiskey and ditching detention. As the song waxes nostalgic about a time long past, it also signals a subtle progression from the hard-rocking songs that defined the band’s youth to the playful musical experimentation which will characterize the band’s future. Following this breakneck-speed opener, every succeeding song on “Stay Positive” has its own distinct feel and no cut sounds rehashed or hastily thrown together.

While the album is wholly original and represents a progressive step forward for the band, this does not stop its lead lyricist from infusing his songs with a mishmash of allusions to previous albums. The title track – its very name an allusion to the band’s first album “Almost Killed Me” – is filled to the brim with casual references to the band’s previous three albums. Lyrically referencing his previously released tracks “Hornets! Hornets!” and “Massive Nights,” Finn holds a miniature reunion within his own song, culminating with the chorus where he repeatedly belts, “We gotta stay positive!”

The sincere cut titled “Both Crosses” is the slowest paced – and arguably best – offering on this diverse album. As the title suggests, the song centers on both religious discovery and disillusionment and is carried over a sea of swift acoustic strums. Referencing Catholic school girls, Judas and crucifixion, the track’s overlying message remains cryptic but the song itself is stunningly beautiful. On one of the album’s latter tracks “Joke in Jamaica,” a series of strong keyboard strokes highlight Finn’s dark outlook about his younger partying days spent in the Twin Cities. He croons solemnly, “Back then it was beautiful / The boys were sweet and musical / The laser lights looked mystical / Messed up stuff felt magical.” Lamenting the easy lays and “c-c-c-c-cocaine blues” of his youth, Finn paints the story with a surprisingly dark brush – a first for a singer who often revels in his glory days.

This invertible relationship can sum up the Hold Steady’s newest musical endeavor. While the good ol’ boys from Minneapolis still have a knack for creating Springsteen-esque chords sprinkled with keyboard notes and rambunctious storytelling, they have also matured creatively as they solidify their band’s distinctive sound. On its newest effort “Stay Positive,” the Hold Steady has demonstrated both its willingness to adapt and its ability to churn out powerful bar-jam chords without growing stale.

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