The Hold Steady
Boys and Girls in America
he fabric of the indie rock scene has changed since the Hold Steady’s 2004 debut Almost Killed Me. Frontman Craig Finn has gone on record and said that Almost’s trad-rock guitars and punky piss-taking were conscious reactions to underground rock’s dance/punk/disco fad. Three years later, Finn and his merry band of classic rockers are now woven into that quilt, as much a part of the “scene” as anyone. The Killers, so involved in the new wave revivalism Finn thumbed his schnozz at, will release an album openly aping Bruce Springsteen on the same day Finn’s Boys and Girls in America drops. If we believe these sorts of things to run in short, awful, self-sustaining cycles (and we do), then we’re about one THS full-length away from some funk-punkers from England taking American roots-rock to task on an obscure, vinyl-only 12”.
But Finn’s been gettin’ on himself: in the last three years, THS have gone from a reactionary, drunken horde with a ‘Mats problem into a nigh on unavoidable rock mainstay hell-bent on defending the old-guard. Boys and Girls in America lassos any lingering pretensions from Separation Sunday and finds THS wallowing, nude, unbathed, in ‘70s rockisms, with Finn largely abandoning conversational rants in favor of conventional crooning.
The move is natural enough; Finn has a nasal, assured bleat and his drinking buddies are surprisingly adept at harmonizing. Mustachioed Franz Nicolay dominates the mix, draping syrupy organs when Finn needs a breather and chording out the verses with axe-man Tad Kubler. Textural and dynamic shifts that would have been inconceivable just two years ago define Boys and Girls: Nashville lighter-wavers, tumbling pop songs, bratty, burly punk.
THS’s strongest moments are still driven by Finn’s singular lyricism, though at this point we could basically make a refrigerator magnet game out of his verse: absent the narrative element of Separation Sunday, Finn’s lyrics are essentially interchangeable. He makes a living in uncertain colloquialisms: “We kinda kicked it,” “I’m pretty sure we kissed,” “I guess I met her…” It all sounds like an undergrad chirping away on a mobile, and maybe that’s the point, but for someone who gets a lot of credit for primo storytelling, Finn beats around a lot of bushes.
At his best, Finn gives just enough detail, carving out little niches in his memory. “Chips Ahoy” recounts an undefined drug problem, an unexplained gambling addiction, an unnamed girl, but when Finn breaks out the name of the horse, he sounds compelling, clever even. In less able hands, “You Can Make Him Like You” sinks into Blink-182 pop-punk hell, but Finn’s tale of dependence—“You don’t have to go to the right kind of schools / Let your boyfriend come from the right kind of schools / You can wear his old sweatshirt”—is affectionate, even as his narrator retains a pedestal of snark and disdain.
The fallout from all of this newfangled “songwriting” is the unmistakable emergence of “Hold Steady-By-The-Numbers.” Boys and Girls’ arrangements are crisp and bright, but they’re also not particularly unique: Keyboards glaze over arpeggios, power chords are smoothed into unrecognizable melodic mush, tempos bleed together. “Station to Station” and “Hot Soft Eyes” remain basically indistinguishable. THS excel in the creamy middle range—think “Multitude of Casualties”—and they pound that sweet spot on “Party Pit” and “Southtown Girls,” but also spend a lot of time fumbling just outside. This is the gamut you run when your sonic vision begins with “Left of the Dial” and ends with “Alex Chilton.”
Put down your copies of Magnet…it doesn’t have to end like this. No one is accusing anyone of insincerity here. THS’s move toward a purer aping of classic rock is mostly welcome and largely successful; the fallout is the loss of the band’s snaky, blunt riffing, their wit dissipating into a pool of honest rocking. It’s a strange, if inevitable, place for Finn to end up. He might’ve mocked himself just two years ago. Finn sounds less like a drinking pal and more like the guy whose records play on the jukebox when you’re drinking, something Finn would probably be proud of. Boys and Girls barters the band’s emotional commitment for a double kick-drum and a rippin’ Les Paul, “Stay With Me” spinning on the ‘box, and a promotional Jack Daniels t-shirt. Maybe this is just the indie rock talking, but things were going a little too well. And we both agreed we wouldn’t get involved…