Review: “Stay Positive,” The Hold Steady

Written by contributing reviewer Jeff Balke … check out his blog here

Referencing Iggy Pop’s “Lust for Life” in the first line of The Hold Steady’s new CD Stay Positive is likely a clue from the band that, while they may appreciate and even resemble the inevitable comparisons to Bruce Springsteen and other big arena rockers, they would probably be happier if we dug a little deeper and realized they owe their existence as much to hard core and underground pop as they do to the Boss or Elvis Costello.

Like their breakthrough album Boys and Girls in America, the Hold Steady continue to cement their place as the best bar band in America with big, loud guitars and the almost rambling vocals of frontman Craig Finn.  Finn’s lyrics, like the music, are direct, without pretense and only a bit more cryptic than previous efforts.  References to his hometown of Minneapolis/St. Paul continue as do the honest depictions of those around the singer.  Finn is one of the finest storytellers working in music today, spinning complicated tales of simple people making them seem larger than life, while reminding us all the while that they are just like us:

Second dates and lipstick tissues
New York is pretty heavy
Girl, I hope it doesn’t crush you

Magazines and daddy issues
I know you’re pretty pissed
I hope you’ll still let me kiss you

Stay Positive pulls no punches.  While it may have many of the signature elements of previous HS releases, the guitars are heavier and the production is thick and layered with elements of another Minnesota band, the Replacements, echoing throughout, particularly on “Slapped Actress.”  Despite the lean towards heavier guitars, HS does not stray too far from what they do best even with the dark, religious overtones of “Both Crosses.”  If you have any doubts, dial up the title track to hear the classic full-bodied B3 backing up eight-note grinding guitars, near-spoken-word vocals and chorus gang chants.

Unlike Boys and Girls in America, this is a more complete effort with very few dead spots tightly packed into 11 tracks and less than 45 minutes worth of music.  While Finn and the band may owe a lot to the big name artists to whom they have been so readily compared, Stay Positive helps to remind the listener that there is an awful lot more going on with The Hold Steady and, no doubt, they would be thrilled we noticed.

MP3: “Sequestered In Memphis”

MP3: “Stay Positive”

The Hold Steady official website

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