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The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant)


The Hold Steady’s latest album, Boys and Girls in America, is possibly their first
attempt to be accessible to the mainstream population. Known for their throat-
clearing instrumentals and singer Craig Finn’s anarchistic growl, this most recent
release is significantly more melodic than previous Hold Steady offerings. Certain
tracks – “First Night” for example – actually flirt with the title of ballad, although I’m
sure the band’s major players would cringe to read such blasphemy. But one
major detail sets the Hold Steady apart from the Pop 100: the simple matter of I.Q.

Finn’s lyrics are famous for creating biographies of drunks and druggies – often
from his hometown of Minneapolis – and while such themes might seem
universal, they always fly just over the heads of the masses. Finn’s preference for
developing specific characters and following their antics prevents listeners from
projecting personal images over each song, and the lack of identification can be a
significant turnoff. After all, our favorite television characters are one dimensional,
and why should we change our minds when it comes to our music? An unnamed
“every girl” looking for love in all the wrong places is much more likely to strike a
chord with target consumers between the ages of 12 and 28 than any identified
individual. And who doesn’t want to slum it for a night by hearing about drug-
induced party antics? Listening to someone sing about being drunk comes
hangover free and is just as essential at a party as the booze itself.

Boys and Girls in America, the characters are still present, but this
time, they’re just general enough that you could possibly substitute your own face
across each one’s mental image.

Nevertheless, the Hold Steady has managed to simplify song characters without
sacrificing the art of story telling. In the opening track, “Stuck Between Stations,”
allusions to John Berryman tell an entire secondary tale. Born in Oklahoma in
1914, Berryman is best known as a Pulitzer Prize winning poet-drifter, mingling
among Ivy Leaguers. The references to Berryman seem more aimed at the crowd
that worshipped Frank O’Hara and Diane di Prima than those who bow down to
the Stones. Still, the parallels between Berryman and our songwriter become
obvious upon closer inspection. Berryman’s poems target the dispossessed – to
borrow the title of his second poetry collection – much like the average Hold
Steady song. His works often feature alter egos like Henry and Mr. Bones, whose
roles may not be so drastically different from those of Finn’s favorites Holly and
Charlemagne. Berryman, known for his alcoholism, killed himself after a life
blotched with bouts of depression and social panic. He threw himself of a bridge
in 1972 in, of course, Minneapolis.

Sprinkled between the lofty literary references and the scrutiny of classic religious
symbols, though, are the kinds of truisms that make the listener feel like part of
the song. At the end of that same first track, Finn candidly tells us, “we drink / we
dry up / we crumble into dust.” Suddenly, we are part of the song. Perhaps that is
what we wanted all along.

There are certain tracks that make me long for the detail of
Separation Sunday
and that masterpiece,
Almost Killed Me. Part of me was hoping for the wry fury
embedded in “Barfruit Blues,” and while it rears it’s head once in a while on
and Girls in America,
its appearance is rarer. Still, despite the occasional
misstep, this is a wholly satisfying album. “Same Kooks” sounds like classic Hold
Steady with the frantic organ backing sepia-toned lyrics and a truly unusual guitar
solo for Tad Kubler. Kubler’s work through the entire album is significantly more
mature than anything he’s recorded to date, and he’s moved on from strumming
chords to sharing lyrical, acoustically conceived melodies with pianist/organ
player Franz Nicolay. The final track, “Southtown Girls,” involves some well-
executed vocal harmonies that bring southwestern barbershop into Brooklyn art
rock. Even the weakest track on the record, “Chillout Tent,” features a worthwhile
cameo by Dave Pirner (of Soul Asylum), if you can tolerate the quavering tremolo
provided by Elizabeth Elmore (formerly of Sarge). She sounds like an alto choir girl
reaching desperately to hit the soprano notes, but in this case you can’t even
blame it on range.

With just that one notable flaw,
Boys and Girls in America is an album that can
easily stand up to its formidable predecessors. The Hold Steady has moved on to
experiment with new musical techniques without abandoning individuality. Don’t
grab this album expecting to hear an elongated version of
Separation Sunday, but
keep in mind: we like it when our band’s change. It’s when all those records are
interchangeable that it’s time to worry.
The Hold Steady take aim at universal appeal
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Boys and Girls in America
Producer: John Agnello

Stuck Between Stations
2. Chips Ahoy!
3. Hot Soft Light
4. Same Kooks
5. First Night
6. Party Pit
7. You Can Make Him Like You
8. Massive Nights
9. Circus
10. Chillout Tent
11. Southtown Girls
E-mail Rachel Hodges at
Don’t miss The Hold Steady at The Middle East in Cambridge on October 30, 2006