Sunday, July 27, 2008

We Gotta Start This One Off

Now it's so competitive,
The sleeplessness and sedatives.
I know it sounds repetitive.
Every show can't be a benefit...

[bitchin' guitar solo]

Yeah, there's a new Hold Steady album. Yeah, I'm pretty happy.

Look, I won't do a real review here, not yet—what I really want to do is some sort of lengthy, pretentious survey of all four records. But for now I'll just say that when it was over I immediately hit "Play" again. I never do that. Even stuff I really love I have to give a rest after each listen or it just doesn't sound right. Familiarity breeds contempt, musically speaking. But I'm on about my fourth time through Stay Positive, and it's still working. I'll just say that after the Hold Steady followed up the bracing shock of Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday with the lovable-but-spotty Boys and Girls in America, I felt that we couldn't be quite sure—but now there's no doubt that we're in the presence of Greatness. Fist-pumping, lighters-in-the-air, ten-thousand-hands-clapping-in-unison-type Greatness. It's difficult for the cynic in me—how can anybody still sing about teenagers and drugs and cars and Bad Boys in Love With Good Girls Gone Bad and keep a straight face? How can Craig Finn be this smart and still believe all his own Transcendent Power Of Rock and Roll bullshit? Then I remember—oh, yeah! It's all true.

Just a taste: "Let me know when you're ready" is rhymed with "John Cassavetes." And, of course, with "hold steady." Hell, yes.

This was the possibly only thing that could make me stop listening to the Mountain Goats, about whom I didn't even know until this year, except as yet another band with a silly animal-based name. But John Darnielle got there first (unless you count the Monkees.) He's been using that name for over a decade. And lately I've been feeling like the eleven-year-old finding out about Bruce Lee. I feel like I felt after Separation Sunday! And it might seem like a jarring shift—these bands superficially don't sound much alike. But I realize that it makes sense—Finn and John Darnielle may be the two best narrative songwriters in America. (Prove me wrong, Will Sheff! You're in the game, but we'll see how this new one turns out.) Both are drawn to the seamy and the hopeless the way their characters are drawn to opiates and fortified wines. And, of course, they've each got a voice that would peel paint.

Of course, Finn the Catholic badly wants his characters redeemed—he wants to redeem them personally! Darnielle's people are clearly going straight to hell and you can't stop them. But it's easy to imagine a Hold Steady version of the downtrodden-teen-lust anthem "This Year," or the thunderous blues of "See America Right." They totally should do that! But will probably cover "Born in the U.S.A." or "Piano Man," instead. Fair enough.

[Note: I had to change that profile photo. It always seems like it'd be delightfully whimsical to do "mock-thoughtful," but the irony doesn't necessarily translate and it's kind of a lame joke anyway. Like having a moustache that's meant to be funny. This one's a compromise. Not pretty. Not unflattering. Not funny at all.]

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