Like so many bands and artists dropping a follow-up to a lauded debut or breakthrough record this year, the Hold Steady bears the love-it-or-hate-it crest. Last year's Separation Sunday, the band's leap into the indie mainstream, was divisive in so many ways. Some wanted to warm up to the highly acclaimed record but struggled getting past vocalist/guitarist Craig Finn's nasal speak-sing delivery; some hated the Hold Steady's bar-band aesthetic; some didn't grasp the album's lapsed-Catholic/drug-fueled concept or just don't want their rock music to carry such grand ambitions.
The band members have acknowledged their status as critics' darlings, and Boys and Girls in America hints at an attempt at mass appeal; the title alone is broad in scope and relatively direct. They've nixed high-concept conceit for an overarching theme, one drawn from Sal Paradise, Jack Kerouac's hero from On the Road. Finn's opening line on opener "Stuck between Stations" lays it out: "There are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right/ Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together."
Beginning with this broad proposal, Finn pulls us into a wayward world of teenagers and twentysomethings breaking each other apart. There are dizzying highs, such as lead single "Chips Ahoy!," where our narrator can't get through to his girl, who's constant racetrack winnings lead to drug binges; and there are crippling moments of clarity, like his sing-along refrain on "First Night": "Don't even speak to all the sequencer and beats boys/ When they kiss they spit white noise." These ideas fit nicely in with the rest of the band's work and Finn's perspective -- again dealing with killer parties and teenage wanderlust -- while he strikes a balance between humor and sorrow. Once again Finn has proven himself highly quotable and perhaps one of today's strongest lyricists -- there's a reason why critics like him so much
This is far from an album that will appeal to all, but it's a hell of a lot more fun than the Hold Steady's previous two efforts. Whereas Separation Sunday was smart but harsh, keeping Finn's abrasive vocals at a distance from the music, here he and the band mesh together -- a benefit from recording the vocals and the music together this time around. Tad Kubler has again produced some great riffs throughout the album, and there's a stronger emphasis on Franz Nicolay's keyboards, particularly on the keyboard bridge of "Chips Ahoy!" and the somber piano on "First Night." Plenty of anthems turn up too: "Massive Nights" and "Party Pit" should add some beer-swilling sing-alongs to their shows. And these are evened out with some of the band's strongest stark moments of reflection, namely "Citrus" and "First Night."
The Hold Steady's brand of rock is far too literate and specific for the masses anyway. Boys and Girls in America is party music for the indie nerds, over-educated and obsessives. But the band members' ambition to find their place in the rock tradition of Springsteen, the Replacements, et al is admirable. They've avoided being pigeonholed as too high-concept but have managed to weave their tales around the roots of their obsessions. Maybe it will make some of the kids find them more likeable, but for their fan base, that's never been a problem.
Label: http://vagrant.com/Audio: http://www.myspace.com/theholdsteady