Listening Booth: The Hold Steady, “Stay Positive”

Written by Listening Booth, Music

Success is problematic for a band. When you’re flying under the radar, no one expects much from you. But then, when you deliver a breakthrough, as The Hold Steady did with Boys and Girls In America, the stakes rise exponentially. It seems that nearly everyone I’ve spoken to has pointed to Stay Positive as the most anticipated album of the year. Uh oh. As Jerry Seinfeld would say, that’s a big matzoh ball hanging out there.

To their credit, Craig Finn and company have not used the occasion to try to make a grand statement (are you listening, Brandon Flowers?), although the harpsichord in “One For the Cutters” is a little bit disconcerting at first. What The Hold Steady have done here is to consolidate the gains they made with Boys and Girls In America, while managing to plow some new ground to demonstrate that the band is not standing still. There will be the usual Springsteen comparisons (and they are justified based on tracks like “Yeah Sapphire”). but this time the band is also letting their Led Zeppelin influence show on the funky “Navy Sheets” and the more acoustic setting of “Both Crosses.”

Tad Kubler has two brilliant guitar solos on the album, and not coincidentally they are crucial to a couple of the album’s most powerful tracks. The sad addiction ballad “Lord, I’m Discouraged” is one of The Hold Steady’s finest moments on record, as is the epic memory play (incorporating Zeppelin song titles in the lyrics) “Joke About Jamaica.” If you’re looking for a somewhat more traditional Hold Steady song, and one that reflects the season, try the opener, “Constructive Summer”:

Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer
I think he might have been our only decent teacher

This needs to be said right up front: Craig Finn is one of the greatest storytellers that rock ‘n’ roll has ever known. And despite the fact that many of his stories deal with heartbreak, drugs, drinking, and murder, he somehow manages to tell them with a smile. I remember seeing the band in Asbury Park last summer. All of them, but particularly Craig, seemed to be having a great time on stage. Of course there were many cocktails involved, but all the drinking in the world isn’t going to help if you don’t love what you’re doing. And it’s chiefly that irony — that ability to relate bleak stories while maintaining a positive attitude — that makes The Hold Steady special. The very first Hold Steady album began with the lyric “I started this band as a positive jam,” while this album’s title track tells us that “It’s one thing to start with a positive jam, and it’s another to see it on through.” The Hold Steady have seen it through.

At Popdose, we provide you with downloadable tracks in an effort to help you decide whether or not you want to purchase the music in question. I would be happy to provide you with a couple of examples from this album, but the record company has made that impossible. The disc I received was not only protected from ripping, it was protected from even playing in my computer. While that’s highly inconvenient for a writer who listens to music either on his computer, or on his iPod, what’s worse is that it prevented me from uploading any tracks from this album for your consideration.

I have received hundreds of discs over my years as a music writer. About three of them were protected in this manner. Perhaps Craig Finn was freaked out because he heard an audience in New York City singing along to “Constructive Summer” weeks before the album was released. Whatever the reason, the fact is that this album was readily available online for people who knew where to look for weeks before its official release. Most albums are. It makes you wonder what it will take for the record companies to stop shooting themselves in the foot, learn to live with modern technology, and leverage it to their advantage. Their failure to do so thus far has resulted in the disaster that is the music business today.