Rantings, reviews and lists from a person who structures half his life around obsessing over music.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

The Hold Steady - Stay Positive (2008)

4.5 ★/9.0 - 9.9

I highly doubt there will ever be a band I enjoy listening to more than The Hold Steady. Yes, there are many more talented and versatile bands out there. After all, at the end of the day, The Hold Steady still prefer to describe themselves simply as "Bar Rock", and none of their albums have broken any grounds or anything. But never question their ambition, which has proven itself to be far wider than your everyday bar band. Just listen to the chorus gang shouts and "larger-than-life" bridge of "Constructive Summer". Better yet, just read the lines that Craig Finn is sneering: "We’re gonna build something, this summer! We’ll put it back together - raise up a giant ladder with love, and trust, and friends, and hammers!" There should be no surprise that they're now on Vagrant, sharing their space with artists like Alkaline Trio and Dashboard Confessional. When you figure out the reason why Craig Finn references drinking so much in his songs, his intentions suddenly appear pretty close to Chris Carrabba's. He just wants to get everyone singing along. And with soaring anthems as huge and catchy as "Yeah Sapphire" and "Magazines", his success is practically guaranteed.

Still, when 2009 is coming to its end, Boys And Girls In America is probably going to be looked back on as one of the greatest, straight-up "Rock" albums of the decade, so regardless of how shamelessly enjoyable Stay Positive is, how exactly does it fit into the band's rapidly growing legacy? Both in terms of quality and sound, the answer is somewhere between Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls, although leaning more towards the latter. Plenty of moments touch upon the ragtag, sinister-sounding narratives of the former (see the apocalyptic acoustic passages of "Both Crosses", or the chugging, minor-keyed "Joke About Jamaica"), but overall, thanks to tracks like "Sequestered In Memphis" and the brilliantly anthemic closer, "Slapped Actress", most listeners will probably associate it more with the throwback arena rockers of Boys and Girls. Another reason Stay Positive seems unable to be detached from its predecessor is that the album structure is identical. The driving "Navy Sheets" is comfortably placed as track four, where the same-minded "Same Kooks" sat on Boys And Girls. And instead of "First Night" calming things down after a lightning-charged burst of energy, the equally affecting "Lord I'm Discouraged" functions as the obligatory ballad.

However, rather than come off as redundant, Stay Positive benefits from the blueprint laid out for it. 40 minutes and 11 tracks is an extremely effective format for an album, and while The Hold Steady probably ran the risk of criticism by cutting it so close to their recent-past triumph, the immediacy and craft of almost every single song is undeniable, regardless of what form it's in. Stay Positive is The Hold Steady's least conceptual and adventurous album yet, but it's also their most unabashedly enjoyable one, and besides Boys And Girls, their most consistent one, securing their reputation as the greatest Rock band alive.

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