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Band holds steady with new Kerouac-inspired album

Chris Riemenschneider
Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

On the weekend of the Hold Steady's CD-release party last year in New York City, frontman Craig Finn nonchalantly mentioned that he recently had reread Jack Kerouac's "On the Road."

"I read it when I was 16 but didn't really get it," he said. "This time, I was surprised how hilarious it is."

Talking by phone two weeks ago - on the road - the Edina, Minn., native was still laughing about Kerouac's book, which gave him the theme behind the Hold Steady's third album, "Boys and Girls in America."

The record, released Oct. 3 by mega-indie Vagrant Records, is named after and largely based on a line in the book: "Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together. Sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk - real straight talk about souls.'"

Finn recalled, "I underlined that and said, "I think I could get a whole album out of that.'"

Could he ever. The songs on "Boys and Girls in America" all touch on the great divide that exists between young men and women, and the crazy things kids do to hook up.

Of course, the NYC-via-MSP band explores this universal motif via the formula that defines each of its albums: vivid and often sordid storytelling about partying, boozing and getting high, all punctuated by headachy guitar riffs and Finn's gruff, weary voice.

"Boys and Girls" has already garnered as much critical acclaim as its predecessor, "Separation Sunday." Unlike that album, though - an epic piece about Roman Catholicism and personal resurrection (and partying, boozing and getting high) - this one's not a concept record, Finn said.

"The songs all loosely relate to each other, but there isn't one linear story," he said. "After `Separation Sunday,' I didn't want to feel like I had to do a concept album every time. Plus, doing it this way was sort of a new challenge, with one theme but otherwise unrelated songs."

The band challenged itself musically, too. Veteran New York producer John Agnello was recruited to oversee the disc, fresh from working on albums by Sonic Youth and the Drive-by Truckers. Even before entering the studio, the band members worked toward making this a more melodic, chorus-filled record.

Much of that work fell to keyboardist Franz Nicolay and guitarist Tad Kubler, the latter of whom played with Finn in the '90s Minneapolis punk band Lifter Puller.

"Craig and I had been doing the big-guitar-riff sound for a long time," Kubler said, "I sort of went with a less-is-more mentality this time. Franz and I worked together a lot and created a lot more space for the piano, which is where a lot of the melodies come from."

To go with the extra dose of piano, there's an inordinate amount of singing on this record. The typically monotone Finn tests his vocal abilities in songs such as the acoustic downer "Citrus" and the CD's anthemic closer, "Southtown Girls," an unlikely reflection on Bloomington, Minn.'s nondescript Southtown Shopping Center.

More prominently, the other members offer more backup vocals, from simple "woh-oh" hooks in "Massive Nights" to full-blown choruses in the horse-race-as-a-relationship song "Chips! Ahoy." Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner and the Reputation's Elizabeth Elmore also provide guest vocals in "Chillout Tent," about a day at a rock fest gone awry.

The album opens rather darkly with "Stuck Between Stations," a steaming rocker inspired by John Berryman, the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet and University of Minnesota professor who committed suicide in 1972 by jumping off the Washington Avenue Bridge.

"I read an article about him in City Pages and, being a Saul Bellow fan, I was drawn to the fact that Bellow called him America's greatest writer," Finn said. "He became Minneapolis" most famous suicide. He also had converted to Catholicism before his death. In my mind, all that added up to a Hold Steady song."

"Boys and Girls" still draws heavily from the members' time in the Twin Cities (drummer Bobby Drake is also a Minneapolis native). It's sprinkled with references to Lyndale Avenue, Interstate 494 and even Blaine's Northtown Mall.

Finn, now 35, said such locations are signposts of his teen years, which he believes "are a time everyone can relate to."

"In the case of this record, we all go through those traumatic teenage rituals like going steady or going to the dance," he said. "Love, though, is sort of the one thing in life we aren't any more wiser about at 35 than we were at 15."

Said Kubler, "I think Craig's great gift is he kind of looks back on his teen years but projects them onto things us older people go through, too - especially people still trying to find themselves."

That idea seems to apply right now in the lives of the Hold Steady's members, who formed in 2001 as a weekend kind of band but have plainly become a full-time operation. Their tour goes nearly till the end of the year.

"It's all been sort of reactionary," said Finn, who still maintains a day job. "The reaction to (2004's "Almost Killed Me') was strong enough to get us out on the road. It got better with "Separation Sunday," and it's already better with this record."

Let's hope Finn still finds time to reread the classics.

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