Tuesday, July 22, 2008

ALBUM REVIEW: "The Hold Steady"

Not much has been coming out in the last couple weeks, but here's a band I've seen advertised and reviewed with praise recently:

THE HOLD STEADY - Stay Positive

Here's the low-down on these guys: They're from Minnesota, this is their fourth album, and they've really just exploded in the last year after opening for the Rolling Stones and The Stooges in Europe, yet they've established themselves recently as "America's Bar Band," and with good reason.

The band consists of five guys:

On vocals and guitar, Craig Finn gives this band their signature sound with a drunken-drawling voice that reminds me of the gritty, guttural growls of Dicky Barrett (The Mighty Mighty Bosstones) combined with the spirit (and meandering, poetic lyrics) of Adam Duritz (Counting Crows) and a tinge of the controlled, hardcore stylings of Greg Graffin (Bad Religion).

The brilliance and clarity of Franz Nicolay's keyboards also helps to define this band's sound, and, again, reminds me a lot of early Counting Crows.

Tad Kublar's guitar is the final key element for this band. A few of his solos can certainly be credited with taking their respective songs to new levels. This guy's not trying to reinvent the wheel, here. He's just out to make great sounds on his instrument. His tone and style remind me of a lot of Classic Rock bands, and the way he loves to bend rich, full, loud notes for the most dramatic effect is something that has been sorely lacking in modern music for far too long.

Bobby Drake is on drums and Galen Polivka is on bass, and as well as these guys do their job on this record, I get the feeling that if they were replaced, no one would really notice.

The new album, Stay Positive, (the first I've ever heard of theirs) is pretty damned great!  It's part punk, part folk, and part rock.  Several parts of it - as you may have noticed - remind me of early Counting Crows records, specifically the 1996 album, Recovering The Satellites, which was dark, brooding and moody, yet insightful, poetic and romantic. Stay Positive often feels the same way, but there is also a very obvious similarity to Bruce Springsteen's 1970s and 1980s sounds with The E Street Band. (One track, "Yeah Sapphire", features a keyboard riff almost lifted entirely from "Born To Run".)  I also hear some Mike McCready (Pearl Jam)-style power chords, some of Rich Robinson's (Black Crowes) guitar riffs, definitely some of (The E Street Band's) Clarence Clemons' saxophone, and a hodgepodge of other borrowed styles, all boiling down to an ultimately original sound. The wandering narrative track, "One For The Cutters", opens with a busy harpsichord piece that sounds like something off of Tori Amos' first album. And if you're any kind of a fan of The Band, (that is, an actual band called "The Band,") you'll be able to easily compare the density and richness of The Hold Steady's sound. But the personality these guys create with all of these various stylings is infectious!

To look at these guys, you might think that the cast of The Man Show put a band together, or you may get a "nerd-rock" feeling like you used to get from Weezer (before they became mega-stars). But to listen to them, you'll know they're all world-class musicians who care more about the emotions of music than the technical stuff. . . but they're great on that aspect, as well.

Overall, the band's sound is rich and moody, but also optimistic. Songs like "Constructive Summer," and the album's title track are fun, sing-along rockers, but they can also get deep and dramatic as in the beautiful power-ballad, "Lord, I'm Discouraged". The songs are all unique and colorful in their own light. Finn's lyrics are artsy, poetic, visual, subtle, clever and profound - he's not dumbing it down for anyone. He makes references to Led Zeppelin (Joke About Jamaica), The Ramones (Constructive Summer), and Billy Joel (Both Crosses). He writes about drug abuse, religion, small town murders, and tragic women, yet never with the holier-than-thou sensibility that we might expect from, say... Bono.

The Hold Steady's songs have the feel of a brilliant independent art film playing out before our ears, as opposed to the suped-up, glossy, hi-res, "Hollywood productions" we're used to hearing on the radio these days.

You can listen to a few of their best tracks for free at The Hold Steady Myspace Page. Or you can sample all the songs and download the album at iTunes.

Buy it, and give it a good week of solid listening. I think it will grow on you quickly, even if it sounds a bit obscure at first. Great album!


Katie said...

Well Michael Wood...you actually held my interest with a music review (I hate reading music reviews) and I even checked them out:) Lay off Bono, and I'll give you two big fat thumbs up!!

Mike Wood said...

Hey! ALL my music reviews are this good! Read them!

Erin said...

nice name dropping...do you listen to greg enough to compare other fools to him! maybe you just really want me to listen to this band...hmmm ;)

Mike Wood said...

I did that for you, hun. ;)

But it did remind me of Bad Religion's sound.