2008 / Music

Review: Hold Steady Expound Rock Myth Again On New LP

Brooklyn-Based Group Releases Fourth Disc

Rock ‘n’ roll starts with notes and chords and tempos, but perhaps its greatest asset beyond how the melodies and beats work together is its mythology.

Photo: Vagrant Records/Rough Trade Records

Photo: Vagrant Records/Rough Trade Records

This mythology says rock music embodies the spirit of freedom, youth and rebellion. It proudly declares that rock isn’t a genre with its own style and code of conduct, but an art form that breaks all the rules and is a path for those seeking escapism and self-expression. Like a badass’ American Dream, the idea gives purpose to people’s aspirations and cloaks any darker motivations (money, fame etc.). It hangs around the music like a superhero’s cape and is meant to lure in and inspire listeners. It solidifies the concept that playing and creating rock music ultimately has a greater, higher purpose.

Whether rock music does actually embody anything beyond the visceral experience that comes with playing/hearing an amplified guitar is ultimately immaterial. What is important is if the public believes the chief propagators of this idea — most notably someone like Bruce Springsteen — actually believe it. If they don’t, then Springsteen and others are just utilizing part of a marketing campaign. That this is all an image projected to appeal to a demographic, like how skulls and the occult are intrinsic to heavy metal and guns and money are featured in hip-hop.

What speaks to the power of Springsteen’s example is in how he’s inspired true believers in the succeeding generations of artists. Of those, there’s no greater example than the Hold Steady. The Brooklyn, N.Y.-based band are pure-breed Springsteen acolytes and their fusion of ’70s corporate-rock motifs and a poetry slam approach to lyric-writing make plain that they wholeheartedly agree with the master’s assessment of this music’s potential. The group’s new record, “Stay Positive,” reiterates — one more time — that they believe in rock’s ability to be a venue for hipster-approved, irony-rich self-expression while simultaneously contradicting themselves by steadfastly refusing to breaking any rules, most notably their own.

“Stay Positive” is the ensemble’s first record in two years after delivering a troika of albums — “Almost Killed Me,” “Separation Sunday” and “Boys and Girls in America” — back-to-back starting in 2004. This flood of product has kept the band’s bullet train of a career from slowing, but also allowed few moments for artistic growth. The group’s musical templates are hailed by critics and have now become firmly entrenched. However, the band’s development has largely been stunted. What we’ve heard over the three preceding albums isn’t an evolution but a process of refinement. Each song’s basic premise is the musicians recycle the instrumentation of Springsteen’s mid-’70s creative zenith and mix in plenty of power-chord licks while lead singer Craig Finn presents himself as the Beat poet of the suburbs. The new record introduces some new sounds and a few almost-famous guests, but doesn’t break the mold in the slightest.

The main problem isn’t that the Hold Steady’s music isn’t entertaining, nor that their retro-ish, Springsteen-borrowing sound is particularly offensive. What’s truly troublesome is how the group’s contrived use of cliches in the songs are often given a pass because of their indie-rock status. When a hair-metal band like Motley Crue or Poison sleazily presents themselves as the defenders of the ’70s old guard, they are treated and perceived as embarrassing hacks. When a hip, underground band like Hold Steady runs through some Jimmy Page guitar shtick and tries to pretend that they’re anything more than a better-than-average bar band, they’re hailed as the second coming. Perhaps this is unfair as Finn and company can’t control how the world perceives their music. They do, however, do little to discourage those who believe the group’s hype.

An undue aura has followed the band since its inception in 2004. The band’s plays up its New York origins on albums and publicity shots, but its actual roots can be traced back to the Twin Cities, where a couple of its members, particularly Finn, come from. Minnesota has a long legacy of annoyingly fervent hometown pride in its native musical heroes — Bob Dylan, Prince, the Replacements, Husker Du and the Pitchfork-championed Tapes ‘n Tapes — and the Hold Steady are certainly the biggest hometown stars since Soul Asylum to get praise beyond their actual accomplishments.

The fact that Finn returns the sycophantic favor by name-dropping Twin Cities locales in his lyrics seals this sham of a marriage. Finn’s loquacious verses are rich with tricky turns of phrase and at the same time, consumed with all-too-familiar images of teenage ennui and canned scenarios of urban decay and danger so as to tickle suburbanites. Finn’s blue-collar, storyteller remembrances’ primary utility is to trick listeners into believing we haven’t heard these kinds of tunes before.

The new record’s lead-off track, “Construction Summer,” revs up and rumbles out of the garage with the kind of frenetic energy that most junior-high bands aspire to. The song is all big, dumb gusto. Tad Kubler’s grinding guitar riffing — bolstered by Dinosaur Jr.-esque lead lines — and keyboard player Franz Nicolay slamming on the piano keys recall what the Velvet Underground would have sounded like if they dropped artsy New York black for Credence Clearwater Revival-style flannel. The song’s breakdown features an interpolating piano ditty that’s an obvious lift off the Boss’ “She’s The One.” It’s a disappointing turn so quickly on the new record. If the band ever intends to step away outside from Bruce’s shadow, these kinds of unconscious plagiarizing can’t happen.

Matters worsen with the record’s second cut, “Sequestered In Memphis,” which attempts the same classic-rock sleight of hand. Here, replace Springsteen’s trademark piano melody with the well-known guitar breaks from the Rolling Stones’ “Honky Tonk Women.” Who are these guys kidding? What’s most egregious about it is how unnecessary it is. There are plenty of other elements that can make this song enjoyable without tarnishing it with blatant theft. Again, Kubler’s guitar propels the song forward and chases most other sounds to the periphery. Finn is in the middle of this chord cacophony, but carves out enough room to lead an all-male sing-along that’s punctuated by Stax Records horns.

The closer we drift toward the record’s center, the more daring material emerges. “One For The Cutters” features jazz-inspired harpsichord runs and allows Nicolay’s piano to take a leading role in conjuring a melody. Even better is “Navy Sheets,” which is constructed on a repeating, somersaulting guitar lick, but this is outlined by a silly ’80s synthesizer ditty. The incongruity of ’70s hard-rock muscle running in parallel to A Flock of Seagulls/Human League keyboard allure serves to create an unusual hybrid. The band is still selecting influences from their record collections, but is at least attempting to repackage them a bit.

Another brush with experimentation comes with “Both Crosses.” For long-time fans, this song should be a shock as the Hold Steady have turned off their amps and have attempted an acoustic-based murder ballad. Bass drums pulsate and a few guitar patterns murmur beneath Finn’s Biblical babbling. Making the song even more bizarre, Dinosaur Jr.’s J. Mascis makes an appearance playing not guitar but a banjo. The noir-ish folk feel of the song is a refreshing break from the constant guitar onslaught. Listeners will quickly hear that the band is again mimicking Springsteen, drawing on his “The Ballad Of Tom Joad” years instead of his stadium-era catalog.

Most of “Stay Positive” keeps to the group’s core musical strategy: just rawk. The band doesn’t have the hooks for this kind of creative obstinacy, and so the record mostly drags on. Songs like “Joke About Jamaica,” “Magazines,” “Yeah Sapphire” or the title track come on but you already want the mindless mosh-pit assault to stop. “Lord I’m Discouraged” is an uncomplicated anthem that’s an ideal karaoke candidate for those who frequent the hick bar near you.

The ensemble’s steadfast dedication to the rock gods finally pays out with “Slapped Actress.” Kubler’s
guitar riffs are harder and louder than their Crazy Horse touchstones, and listeners can finally hear something that grows out of the band’s inspirations and doesn’t just duplicate their most-identifiable features. Between the chords, Finn sing-speaks his inner manipulations, trying to tie up his seedy fantasies away from his more respectable pursuits and vice versa. The way he unravels both parts are done with patience and we’re finally intrigued by what he says and not numbed by his wordiness. The dual nature that he details offers an obvious corollary between the band’s image and their true selves. The band members obviously recognize fact from fiction, but will the group’s own acolytes?

Like their preceding albums, “Stay Positive” is a statement of belief in rock’s liberating powers. Finn and the other members of the Hold Steady believe that replicating their musical antecedents is the path to exorcise the social and cultural restraints that they’re rebelling against.

Four albums of musical copycatting should make die-hards see that while their belief in the music’s redemptive powers are whole-hearted, their rebellion is largely hollow.

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Note: David’s nationally syndicated music column, Soundbytes, appeared in the Entertainment section of all Internet Broadcasting websites. This column was originally published there.

©Copyright 2008 by David Hyland. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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