The Hold Steady: Stay Positive

July 21, 2010 § Leave a comment

It becomes increasingly more obvious as Stay Positive continues that it has a different tone than the first three albums from The Hold Steady. For lack of a better word, sometimes it feels downright positive, even though lead singer Craig Finn is still chronicling the same stories he always has been. But on Stay Positive it seems as if some of the kids Finn has been writing about have finally grown up and are looking back on their teenage years. They see the good and the bad and they recognize how these things have shaped them, but they also take notice of those people that never grew up. The stories about these people and their wasted potential might be some of the saddest Finn has ever penned.

The record’s really about aging gracefully and I keep coming back to that because rock ‘n’ roll is a tough business to age gracefully in. It’s tough being thirty-six and doing it for a living, and wanting to be an adult and a respectable person who’s able to communicate with other people in other parts of society and not just be rock ‘n’ roll all the time, you know? So it’s a struggle to be happy where you’re at as a grown-up and also hold on to some of your youthful ideals.-Craig Finn, talking about Stay Positive (http://www.aquariumdrunkard.com/2008/06/27/craig-finn-the-hold-steady-ad-interview-pt-1/)

Growing up is hard, but necessary. This seems to be the theme of Stay Positive, and it’s evident from the album’s first track, Constructive Summer. Initially, the burst of punk energy that is Constructive Summer seems to be an ode to getting hammered and living it up on those late summer nights. And in some ways it is, but it’s really an exuberant anthem dedicated to a life full of promise, provided one takes hold of the promise offered. The song ends with the declaration, “We are our only saviors, let’s build something this summer.” Is Finn advocating that there is no divine salvation, or does he mean that we alone are responsible for our decisions and therefore, in a sense, direct our lives? If I had to choose, I would suggest that Finn is hinting at the latter, especially when this line is viewed in context with rest of the song. Earlier Finn sings, “This whole town is lifeless, it’s been that way our whole lives, work at the mill until you die.” I think he is suggesting that we have a choice to continue living in a lifeless town or to do something constructive.

It seems like this is what Finn has always been talking about. He never gives his characters excuses for their behavior, but shows their consequences. There always seems to be a choice for his characters and, by extension, for us his audience. We see the good and the bad, and must ask ourselves if we are taking advantage of our lives and aging gracefully. In Lord, I’m Discouraged Finn shows the toll that having friends who have become depressed or addicted to substances can have on a person. In some of the most heartfelt lines on the album he sings, “I know it’s unlikely she’ll ever be mine, so I mostly just pray she don’t die.” Funny, it seems like I’ve prayed that latter part before. The choices we make just don’t affect ourselves, but can have devastating effects on others.

There are two keys songs on Stay Positive that illustrate the struggle and necessity of growing up, and I want to highlight them. Stepping out of story mode, the title track seems almost autobiographical. Imparting wisdom gained from his years growing up Finn sounds downright fatherly at times, especially when he sings, “There’s going to come a time when the true scene leaders will forget where the differ and get big picture. Cause the kids at the shows, they’ll have kids of their own.” It’s Finn’s dream of the unified scene, happening because the kids grew up and realized there is more to life than fighting over things that were never that important to begin with.

Then there’s Joke About Jamaica, a sobering/rocking meditation about then versus now. It begins as a story of a girl who used to flirt with the boys and never had to pay for her drinks, which transforms as she gets older. Now none of the boys make eye contact with her and the new bands are louder, but she doesn’t want to grow up.  “Back then it was beautiful…we were all invincible,” sings Finn, acquiescing to the fact that this invincibility is nothing more than a facade erected by youth and alcohol. Part of growing up is this realization that we aren’t invincible, but the hard part is keeping a youthful perspective about it all, as Finn alludes to in the interview quoted earlier. It’s a depressing, but hopeful revelation to realize your own mortality.

The album, however, ends on a high note, preserving the optimism of Constructive Summer but also incorporating the wisdom of Stay Positive. Slapped Actress is an epic song, grandiose in its musical presentation and in its lyrics comparing our lives to a cinematic production. It concludes with this line, “Man, we make our own movies.” The album has returned full circle. Ultimately, we are responsible for the choices we make. We may not be able to control our circumstances, good or bad, but we can control how we react to them.

“Man, we make our own movies.”

The Hold Steady: Almost Killed Me

July 14, 2010 § Leave a comment

Also, I think if people would listen to The Hold Steady’s lyrics, although there tends to be a lot of talk of drugs and sex and things like that, it tends not to be a glorification. I tend to think we present the downside. I think the people who are really paying attention realize that…I’ve known people who have had drug and alcohol problems and I don’t think it’s funny. I don’t think it’s something to be glorified. It’s just a story I’m telling.-Craig Finn (http://www.aversion.com/bands/interviews.cfm?interview=232)

“It’s just a story that I’m telling,” says Finn and earlier in the interview he says, “I really want it to be honest.” And honest they are, for as much as they revel in the apparent glories of alcohol or drug induced stupor, there is always a firm awareness of their consequences. Sometimes it might only be one or two lines in a song, or even on the whole album, so as Finn says, close attention is needed to notice the advice he is imparting. While this advice is more obvious on later releases Stay Positive and Heaven is Whenever, The Hold Steady’s inaugural album Almost Killed Me tells its stories with this same mentality.

Almost Killed Me doesn’t quite have as much religious imagery as the following albums, but it does contain plenty of witty one-liners hidden behind the dirty, haphazard music. The album opener, Positive Jam, seems to be the band’s mission statement as Finn recounts the decades of the 1900s and then says, “We’ve got to start it with a positive jam.” It’s a new century and a new generation. These songs seem to be tales of us, the kids, teenagers, twenty-somethings who are growing up in this new century.

There are songs like The Swish, Knuckles and Hostile, Mass. which triumphantly speak of run-ins with the police and late night parties replete with obscure highs and plenty of alcohol. These are the kids looking for something to do to jolt them out of their “boring” lives, searching for thrills in any way they can obtain them. A constant in these stories is the occasional wry observation that Finn always seems to make which, if you catch it, forces a moment of reflection. In Knuckles as Finn plays the part of a witty drug dealer he tosses out this line in the final verse, “It’s hard to stay in bed when half your friends are dead.” Or for instance in Hostile, Mass. he says this, “In the park drinking dark Bacardi, thinking things are funny when they really aren’t that funny…the color of their eyes match the color of our blood.” Consequences, to be certain.

Barfruit Blues is one of those songs that Finn specializes in, seemingly a story of a bar filled with all kinds of fun shenanigans, until we arrive later on in the song. Barfruit Blues begins talking about Holly (see Separation Sunday) and the party and then Finn adds this about her, “Holly can’t speak. She doesn’t feel that sweet, about the places she sometimes has to go to get some sleep.” Also, take note of the Springsteen reference (from Born to Run) in the song’s finale, “Baby, we were born to choose… we were born to bruise.” Is the time for running over or is there nowhere to run to? In this new century, have we realized that there is nowhere that we can run to get away from ourselves?

The band Titus Andronicus takes this a step further in their song A More Perfect Union on their newest album Monitor. Paying homage to Springsteen and possibly The Hold Steady lead singer Patrick Stickles sings this, “Because baby, tramps like us, we were born to die.” Is this the legitimate end of the postmodern worldview?  With no nowhere left to run, nothing to choose from and no one, not even ourselves, left to bruise do we just exist to die? I think Finn’s answer is slightly more optimistic, because if he thought this I doubt he would be talking about the consequences of actions. And he definitely wouldn’t have written Separation Sunday.

So why do we exist, according to Finn? That’s not really an answer I know, but I do know that while there several of The Hold Steady’s songs point to having fun and living it up, this is never seen as the sole purpose of living. There is always the understanding that eventually we have to grow up and take responsibility for our lives and for others who may depend on us. We exist to be in community with others, Finn seems to be saying. Take Sweet Payne for instance as the guitars, bass and drums build up to a euphoric declaration of, “I always dream about a unified scene.” There is the guitar squealing in the background, with Finn belting out and it’s one of the most exuberant pieces of music on the album. A unified scene, a place where kids don’t get into fights about stupid things, where they’ve learned to grow up.

There is meaning for us–children of this generation, boys and girls in America–in community, whether that be in an unified scene, in church (Separation Sunday), or with friends. There is also meaning in growing up and taking responsibility for our actions, like Holly eventually does in the Separation Sunday story or as Finn talks about in Stay Positive and Heaven is Whenever. Sometimes it’s hard to find this meaning and often we would rather take the easy way of false community through alcohol or sex, but as The Hold Steady often shows, this eventually leads to unfortunate consequences. But there is always hope and there is always grace.


The Hold Steady: Boys and Girls in America

July 10, 2010 § Leave a comment

“Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together…crushing each other with colossal expectations.”

You could make a case for Stuck Between Stations as being one of the best songs on Boys and Girls in America but when you have this many good songs on an album, why quibble? As the frenetic keyboard of Franz Nicolay swarms through Finn’s vocals you already know that this album is something special. It’s strange how easy it is for me to identify with The Hold Steady, considering that during my teenage years, I didn’t do any of the things they sing about. But there are certain things that are universal to being a teenager in America, trying to grow up in a country that places such large expectations on its youth, which we in turn place upon ourselves.

If one pays attention to the Hold Steady’s discography there is a clear thematic progression from their debut Almost Killed Me to their latest album Heaven is Whenever. That theme is growing up. Almost Killed Me is full of tales of parties, whereas Separation Sunday deals with redemption and religion amidst the parties. Stay Positive and Heaven is Whenever both deal with the consequences of these actions and the slow realization that responsibility eventually comes along with life. And with this responsibility comes some wisdom gathered from failures and successes (more on this in weeks to come). Boys and Girls in America is the transitional album between these, as it seeks to find out how this transition takes place and while doing this it delivers some beautiful insight into the growing us process.

I don’t pretend that I’ve fully grown up, so in many senses there are still things in my life that resonate with Finn’s lyrics. Not necessarily with the specific circumstances but with the emotions behind them. I know the colossal expectations us boys place on the girls and in many cases the colossal pressure girls place on guys. And I also know the expectations we place on ourselves.

There are songs like Party Pit, Massive Nights and Hot Soft Light that tap into the joyful invincibility of teenage years. You can hear it as Finn sings. Those years when you don’t want anyone telling you what to do and when you think you know everything. When you have your first girlfriend and you are absolutely convinced that nothing would ever make you break up, even though everyone older than you says otherwise. You feel like you can defy the entire world, until you learn that you can’t.

This is something Craig Finn seems to know well as these odes to parties and good times are broken up by songs like First Night, Citrus and Southtown Girls which show a different picture. Some things can never be the same when you grow up. High school is never high school again. As Finn sings in First Night, “We can’t get as high as we did on that first night.” What follows this line might be the closest thing to musical realization of growing up that I’ve ever heard. Everything always changes and we can try to postpone that, Lord knows I’ve tried, but we can’t stop it.

It’s fitting that the album closes with this line from Southtown Girls, “Southtown girls won’t blow you away, but you know they’ll stay.” What’s more important, loyalty and security or life-altering experiences? It’s almost like Finn is asking us, the boys and girls in America: who are you going to be? It’s up to us to make the decision.

The Hold Steady: Separation Sunday

June 14, 2010 § 1 Comment

This is not a review of just an album or even necessarily a review. Think of it as an exploration, if you will, trying to figure out why over the past few months The Hold Steady has become one of my new favorite bands. Certainly, they make good music with, at times, monstrous hooks, but it’s something more. They have it. You know what I’m talking about. It’s that one line or one piece of music that transforms the music into something transcendent, hopeful even. Some bands have this in small quantities, and some, even though they may make great music, don’t have it at all. But The Hold Steady does, and this light pops up in unexpected places in their normally dismal (or triumphant) tales of drugs, alcohol and relationships gone awry.

Most of my love for The Hold Steady springs from their albums Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America. These are also the two albums of theirs I have the most experience with. I hope to, over the next few weeks, do write ups on each of the albums and their moments of profound truth. I’ll start with the albums I know the best which will give me time to listen to the others and form a better opinion.

Craig Finn, leader singer and lyricist, is part genius and part insane. There is a certain poetic brutality to some of his lyrics. At first listen, his lyrics seem to be rambles about partying and living it up. But with repeated, concentrated listens we see Finn is often telling both sides of the story. He does this through a myriad of ways, one of the most prominent being recurring characters, Holly (or Hallelujah), Charlemange and Gideon, that resurface in the lyrics from time to time as we follow their lives.

Holly is the main focus of Separation Sunday, as the album is a loose concept album related to Holly’s life and her eventual return to her church on Easter Sunday. Considering the album ends with “This is How a Resurrection Really Feels” it’s probably the most redemptive of The Hold Steady’s albums. To really understand the story takes some in-depth listening. That’s the beauty of The Hold Steady. You can rock out to their music if you just want to listen to some loud guitars, or if you take a little more time you can peel back the layers of depth underneath the music. Let’s look a little closer at how Separation Sunday manages to tell a story of true redemption amidst a bunch of crap.

Hornets! Hornets! starts off the album giving us a sort of background to Holly and who she is, “She said there’s going to be a time when I’m going to have to go with whoever gets me the highest.” This leads right into Cattle and the Creeping Things which is slathered with religious images, as Holly appears to be going through rehab, where she has discovered God. Filled a plethora of ingenious lyrics such as “I guess I heard about original sin. I heard the dude blamed the chick. I heard the chick blamed the snake. I heard they were naked when they got busted” and “she said: I was seeing double for three straight days after I got born again” the song propels religion into the forefront of this album. Right after this song, the albums swings back to the partying, and continues these drastic swings throughout.

In an interview Craig Finn says this, which I found fascinating and which explains a lot of the struggle between religion and hedonism on Separation Sunday.

You know, so I went on the road, and I brought a bunch of Kerouac stuff. And I think it’s just incredible writing, and beautiful, but one of those things that I thought was interesting was how he was always wrestling with his conservative upbringing. I think a lot of people wrestle with that, and that’s what these characters are doing. They’re swinging wildly between a conservative, religious upbringing and a more hedonistic, desperate lifestyle. (http://www.splendidezine.com/features/holdsteady/)

This phenomenon occurs right away in the next song, Your Little Hoodrat Friend. Talking about Holly, the song says, “Tiny little text etched into her neck that says ‘Jesus lived and died for all your sins.’ She’s got blue-black ink and it’s scratched into her lower back, says ‘damn right, He’ll rise again.” Immediately the religious imagery appears again among the “getting plastered” and “getting probed” by the cops. One line in particular points to this mentality that Finn is trying to get at when it says, “I’ve been shaking hard and searching in a dirty storefront church and I’ve been plowed.” The “searching” here could mean a number of things and that half of what makes Finn’s lyrics so interesting. Searching for God or simply searching for a place to crash until the high wears off?

The album rolls on with Banging Camp, finding our characters searching for redemption among drugs and alcohol as they party along the banks of the river. Charlemange in Sweatpants continues the story, “Holly was supposed to be at CCD but she was down on shady streets…and it’s not like she’s enslaved, it’s more like she’s enthralled.” Here we have Holly skipping out on CCD to go downtown, party and find drugs so she can have a “good time”.

Stevie Nix could be considered the turning point of the album, as the final stanza tells us about Holly’s past and the many things that contribute to her eventual redemption at the end of the album. “She got screwed up by religion, she got screwed by soccer players…she got confused about the truth, she came to in a confession.” All of this could be so easy to miss with the guitars blaring in the background and the beautiful piano solo that leads into and continues throughout this final stanza. Multitude of Casualties tells of how Holly eventually arrives at the end of her rope, ditches her boyfriend (Gideon?) and becomes born again. “While he was down in Lowertown, she was feeling out the 5:30 folk mass…youth services always find a way to get their bloody cross into your druggy little messed up teenage life.”

Don’t Let Me Explode and Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night don’t really further Holly’s narrative along much, but they do explain Charlemange’s fate, if you catch the subtle hint to it at the Don’t Let Me Explode.   Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night is interesting due to the numerous religious references that pepper its lyrics, and is a great jam, like most of the songs on the album. But as far as Holly’s story goes, the last two songs on Separation Sunday are by far the most redeeming and interesting.

Crucifixion Cruise despite its under two-minute running time, truly marks Holly’s turn from her former life to grace. “Talking loud over lousy connections, she put her mouth around a difficult question. she said, ‘Lord, what do you recommend to a real sweet girl who’s made some not sweet friends?'” The soft music that swells underneath this declaration stands in contrast to the rather raucous rock ‘n’ roll that has characterized the rest of the album, and really sells this moment. Then, with all the joy that a guitar can muster, comes How a Resurrection Really Feels, crashing into the quiet and delivering Holly’s final message.

She crashed into the Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass…when she said, ‘Father, can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?”

Holly has returned. Enough said.

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