It’s taken a while for The Hold Steady to make it to these shores. After two well received LPs on NYC indie label Frenchkiss (2004’s Almost Killed Me and 2005’s Separation Sunday) it took a move to Vagrant for an proper debut in the UK to appear. It makes a nice change for a band to surface from the underground with some weight behind them rather than a hyped debut followed by general apathy.
Boys And Girls In America is an exciting combination of big riffage, guitar solos, stax horns and tinkling piano that doesn’t over think things. It doesn’t particularly challenge musically, but the point is more to be an inclusive experience (like much of the subject matter of parties and shared experiences) rather than some avant-rock chin-stroking fest. It’s anthems-ahoy on the AC/DC bar room boogie of “Same Kooks”, the “Born To Run”-esque “Stuck between Stations” and the strident R n R or “Chips Ahoy”. Even when a slower song like “First Night” almost threatens to turn into the bland AOR of Counting Crows they sidestep this awful fate by including a sense of weary pathos combined with an exalted coda.
What takes this from a pretty good to a great record is the stories spun and world-weary drawl of singer Craig Finn. Finn’s vocal style has been compared to Bruce Springsteen and rightly so, but he has as much in common with GBV’s Bob Pollard. He has the latter’s ‘been-there-done-that’ presence and though he doesn’t exactly have a ‘range’ as such the melody is ably provided by backing vox or other instruments. Most importantly though he sounds like he’s lived the tales he tells. We come across a recurring characters (“Gideon’s got a pipe made from a Pringles can”), drug casualties (“Holly’s not invincible, in fact she’s in the hospital”) and hazy mornings-after-the-night-before (like on “Same Kooks”’ – “They found me in a florist/I was fried and out of focus/I was kicking it with chemists”).
Even when a slower song like “First Night” almost threatens to turn into the bland AOR of Counting Crows they sidestep this awful fate by including a sense of weary pathos combined with an exalted coda.
It’s a kind of concept record in that all the tracks are tales of boys and girls and their experiences of parties, and each other, either drunk or high, and what makes it so pertinent is how it deals with the ups, the downs and the aftermath of these. On one hand there’s the festival romance on “Chill Out Tent” and the intoxicated hurrah of “Massive Nights”, but also the drunk’s melancholy of “Citrus”. You don’t need to be American to relate to nights like these.
The title “Boys and Girls In America” is taken from Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, which is an interesting aside as it shares that novel’s record of a distinct period of American youth and popular culture. In this case The Hold Steady have managed to make a classic rock record that celebrates youthful oblivion and fucked-up people and relationships (real life, really) without resorting to cliche, oblique references or depressing outlooks. Their take on ‘big’ music and chasing the buzz is every bit as good as The Killers latest take and deserving of as much praise. 2007 starts here.