'Boys And Girls In America' blasted the Hold Steady into stratospheric blog hype, many charmed by the Kerouac referencing lyrics and classic rock bluster. Some remained unconvinced, feeling the lacking in the music to be unduly overshadowed by the lyrics. School report says “room for improvement”.
The album gets off to an inauspicious start. 'Constructive Summer' and 'Sequestered In Memphis' both continue the boring bluster of 'Boys And Girls...' In these post modern times you'd think that the wheezing 80s dinosaurs of rock would bear no relevance any more.
Their (welcome) experimentation with different styles is finally demonstrated on 'One For The Cutters', which rolls along on its harpsichord bed, before pianos meld in. It shows where the band could go if they didn't rely on their tiresome blasting guitars. Drama fills the chords, as instruments stack up into a song that shows the progress since the last album. The more diverse instrumentation is continued on 'Navy Sheers', with synths deployed to great effect, sounding not unlike wurlitzers.
The tone is rapidly lowered with 'Lord I'm Discouraged', a track that scores a distinct 'D' for melody, a mid paced exercise in muscial sedation. The guitar solo vomits up the worst excesses of 80s fretwork. If it was a parody it would be funny. But it's not. You can imagine the guitarist pulling earnest orgasm faces in its particularly fiddly bits. It undoes all the good work done earlier in the album.
Too many of the tracks work on the 'let's build the track to a loud conclusion' principle. That's you, 'Constructive Summer'. That's you, 'Yeah Sapphire'. 'Both Crosses' creates a kind of desert blues feel, adding banjos and Bible references into the mix. It shows that when the Hold Steady reign themselves in a bit, the music can breathe properly, no longer strangled by Hammond and guitars.
Saying that, 'Stay Positive' manages to show, when they try the Hold Steady can rock, sometimes. Organ, guitar, vocals and backing come together better than they do anywhere else on the album. Another weak link in the fragile chain is added in 'Magazines', a track that goes nowhere, filler as horrible as crab paste.
Final track 'Slapped Across' also succeeds in reaching epicness without descending into power rock cheesiness. The production sounds muddy but the fade out into choral ending works well.
The problem with The Hold Steady was that, bar the lyrics, were they any more than a glorified pub rock band? The greatness of the lyrics has been overhyped, like any thing which gets the attention of over enthusiastic teenagers with internet access. Craig Finn is good, but he's no Yoni Wolf. The music, however, is much improved, a wider selection of instruments grabbed out the music cupboard. Unfortunately it doesn't always come off right on 'Stay Positive', leading to an inconsistent mixed bag of an album. Plenty of jelly babies, but the odd aniseed ball thrown in to ruin things.