I’m not sure what I think America — the country, the concept — really is anymore. We are at odds with our very self, our collective brain bipartisaned, confused appendages warring against each other, sending us staggering and stumbling out the back door of Freedom, a face plant on the sidewalk of Democracy. Is there a force that will congeal our diverse cells, scabbing over our national nicks, cuts, and gaping wounds? Reflexively, I always turn toward music to answer any of Life’s Big Questions. This strategy is likely fallible, a steady backbeat behind some rhyming proclamations probably proving an unlikely solution to global issues. Buy, hey, I’m just trying to cope, like everybody else. And music is my narcotic.
So, whenever I feel helpless about the U.S.A., frozen in my tracks like a first day intern thrown into a frantic emergency room, I turn to the one band who seem truly able to crack open up the chest cavity of this country in critical condition, examining its heart (and its liver), and stamp a big, bold “ROCK ON!” across its unclean bill of health. And I think to myself: Hell yeah. The Hold Steady, you see, distill everything down its essence. What is important are the people right in front of them. What matters are the Boys and Girls in America. They are our target audience; they drive the economy; as our oldest children, they are our immediate future. Morbidly self-involved, they are also our cultural barometer. Craig Finn, the Hold Steady’s lyricist and talk-singer extraordinaire, says it best. From track one, “Stuck Between Stations”:
“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time togetherSucking off each other at the demonstrations
Making sure their makeup’s straight
Crushing one another with colossal expectations
Dependent, undisciplined, sleeping late”
This pronouncement could seem gloomy, were it not for the cresting wave of glorious E-Streetwise music upon which Finn’s words ride. In the opening seconds of this, the Hold Steady’s third album, Tad Kubler’s guitar comes out chopping crisply, steady as a chef’s knife, while Franz Nicolay’s piano rings out like bells across water. Behind this, the requisite kick drum thumps its pulse (courtesy of Bobby Drake), an almost clichéd element of the arrangement, but so gloriously rock ‘n’ roll, all the same. Then, with bassist Galen Polivka joining in, the central riff emerges, settles down for the verse, and then the band explodes into the chorus. This album is awash in insta-classic lines, couplets, and stanzas, so pardon me if I get carried away with the quotations. From that first song’s refrain: “She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian / She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend”. Ah, the lord giveth and the lord taketh away. In the world of the Hold Steady, everyone is compromised and everyone makes compromises. Life is all shades of gray, and the gray is whirring by in a blur.
The first three tracks on Boys and Girls in America are the wholly awesome trinity. “Chips Ahoy!” is the racehorse that the narrator’s girlfriend accurately predicts will win. She’s a gifted girl, but she’s hooked on painkillers, and all her boyfriend does is complain: “How am I supposed to know that you’re high / If you won’t let me touch you?”, while the backup boys sing “woah-uh-ho, uh-wuh-ho-huh-ho” with all their might, and Nicolay’s organ bleats along with the rhythm section’s meaty punctuations. The horse is a winner, and so is the song. Next up is “Hot Soft Light”, with its great-big staccato rock riff indebted deeply to Pat Benatar (see “Treat Me Right” and “Hit Me with Your Best Shot”). It’s beautifully faux-heavy, while the hook is pure gold. Of course, the words are what transcend. Wait, more lyrics? Yes, I must! These are as sung, rather than as printed, because the repetition drives home the Mars-vs.-Venus dichotomy: “There are guys, there are guys, there are guys, there are guys / With wild eyes when they ask to get you high / There are girls, there are girls, there are girls, there are girls / That will come to you with comfort in the night”.
I won’t burden you with a play-by-play of the whole album. A few more highlights: The band break it up nicely with “First Night”, a beautiful, sobering ballad that resurrects Charlemagne and Holly (star of “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”) from Separation Sunday. “Chillout Tent” would make for a good single, with guest vocals from Dave Pirner (Soul Asylum) and Elizabeth Elmore (the Reputation), who play a couple of kids who “kind of kicked it” in the titular locale after each of them nearly O.D. at an outdoor concert. Aw, how sweet. “Party Pit” where “she got pinned down” and they “sailed away on such separate trips” is also catchy as all get out. It’s made even better by a “Live and Let Die”-like dramatic, minor-keyed break, which, of course, segues back into the same riff-rocking, rollicking good time the track began with.
The album only underperforms on a couple of occasions. The brisk, organ-driven “Same Kooks” is probably fun live, but it’s mostly a frantic mess on record. Unfortunately, the disc closes on a somewhat lackluster cut, “Southtown Girls”. There’s really nothing wrong with this track. It’s got a nice guitar solo, and the chorus is right on the verge of being catchy. For some bands, this would be among their better bits. Here, it’s a letdown, a disgruntling comedown. It’s the glare of the house lights, the milling of the crowd toward the exit. The show is over. Ah, but the memories live on. Spin it again, Sam.
On, Almost Killed Me the Hold Steady’s 2004 solid debut, they were content to be the world’s best bar band. Last year, on their mighty fine Separation Sunday, the group proselytized in small clubs from coast to coast. With this new record, the Hold Steady are an arena-sized rock band (despite their itinerary saying otherwise; their reality simply hasn’t caught up yet with their meteoric, metaphorical self). Their musical ambitions have quickly grown in scope. They began by replacing the Replacements as catchy, beery, Midwest quasi-punkers and have sprung up into Springsteenian epic rock chroniclers of the quintessential wayward American, who, in the past few decades, has morphed from a working stiff into partying teen.
Incredibly, the Hold Steady have nearly reached this lofty goal. Boys in Girls in America is one gargantuan anthem short of, and two bits of filler long on, the band’s Born to Run (LP number three from the Boss, incidentally). Those are the differences between a great album and a masterpiece. But, hey, a great album is still… great! All the cheering fans, bright lights, and confetti splashed across the CD’s cover art are warranted. Full-length perfection is rarely attained, and, at this late date on the calendar, I don’t think we’re going to find it in 2006. Though not a shoe-in, Boys and Girls in America should be seen as a strong contender for album of the year.