Tuesday, June 3, 2008

leak of the week - stay positive

there's an epic scene from animal house (hell, they're all epic scenes!) when john belushi stands up, belches, and says "what the fuck happened to the delta i used to know?" that, my friends, is how i feel about the hold steady. what the fuck happened to "positive jam"? or separation sunday? or holly, whose parents named her hallelujah? craig finn has never been one to mince his words, but for the first time, he's saying too much. stay positive, the minneapolis-cum-brooklyn quintet's fourth full-length, is a feel good summer special (as if the uncharacteristically posi title couldn't give it away) that marks the band's continued self-distancing from their previous work, and gives skeptical listeners one more nail to hammer in the coffin. while stay positive does redeem some of boys and girls in america's mistakes, it ultimately just affirms the fact that the hold steady will merely continue to try and sound more and more like bruce springsteen, and less and less like feminax junkies with big decision blues.

stylistically, the hold steady made their biggest leap between two revelations - that hallelujah was a hoodrat and that boys and girls in america have a sad time together - and there are few musical surprises nestled in stay positive's arena americana folds. the still-cursory evolution on this record belongs to finn, who wrestles into a new role with all the grace of a character actor playing a lead, and even sings a bit! wonders cease pretty quickly after that though. regardless of whether there was anything left of the affectionately insane, neo-revivalist sidewalk preacher that described the pipes and planks of underground catholicism once the southtown girls finished with him, finn has decisively retired him for a middle-class slummer singing about middle america, and the character change goes down less than smoothly. long known by their drinking habits, the hold steady raise their voices to declaim "get hammered!" on stay positive's leadoff track "constructive summer" - no subtle slumming joke that. and just in case you missed the message, finnsteen waxes "work at the mill until you die / work at the mill and then you die" a couple minutes later. his level of comfort with first-person collegiate female perspective increases, but it's unlikely that the heroine of the breaking away homage "one for the cutters" goes to bowdoin; no, she's a good city girl who walks on the wild side and gets in touch with "real," blue-collared america and pays the price.

it's no accident that stay positive's sharpest songs can't help but dig up pieces of the past - for all of his fresh, working-class cheerleading, finn still has a narrative gift, and resurrecting his lyrical ghosts answers questions posed albums before. it's almost a tender move, reminding the faithful that they're the same band, only different. the album's eponymous track epitomizes the hold steady's self-reverential self-reflection, a shoutout to 'positive' jams as well as their adoring fans, which, despite its cloying optimism still provokes a full-blown smile - in public. sometimes finn's allusions are less direct, like on the sanctified "both crosses," when the return of his unique christianity seems both poignant and hopeful. the transubstantiation of christ to midwestern high schools rings hollow, however, and almost stinks of pander; instead of holly's "lord, what do you recommend / to a real soft girl having real hard times," echoing and reverberating, "both crosses" comes off either as a insincere memorial to a matthew shepard or a meth-induced vision of the crucifixion, and either possibility is almost too depressing to consider.

finn's lyrics used to be the heartstone of the hold steady, but that role is more tenuous than ever in stay positive. he still is in privileged company (that of john darnielle and stuart murdoch, for example), in terms of narrative skill and poetic evocations, but his instances of sheer verbal genius appear less reliably often. finn introduces this unfortunate development in "constructive summer," with the declaration that "our songs are sing-along songs." yeah?, cuz that's the first i've heard of it. the hold steady used to write speak-along songs, and the first few rows would be red in the face midway through "charlemagne in sweatpants" and hoarse by "killer parties"... but never sing-along. but the hold steady play festivals now, and big outdoor arenas, and no one is out of breath in the front row, unless it's from trying to not get squashed. but rather than bemoan the band's well-deserved elevation, a more serious cause for concern is repetition, a tool that finn turns to more often than ever here. some of his finest lyrics bend repetition, like the last few lines of "barfruit blues," rhyming "lose," "choose," "blues" and "bruise," but the flat re-recitation in songs like "lord, i'm discouraged" and "yeah, sapphire" are both uncharacteristic and unwelcome. sure, "fortified wine" is a great phrase, but hearing it four or five times is not what i expected from craig finn. booze has always played an unfortunately large role in the management and development of the hold steady, and maybe it's time to question how much damage that's doing.

"one for the cutters" & "stay positive" (links removed)
stay positive is due out on vagrant records on july 15.

3 comments:

applechancery1 said...
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rm said...

WEB SHERIFF
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WITHOUT PREJUDICE

Hi,

On behalf of Rough Trade, Beggars Digital and The Hold Steady we would kindly ask you not to post copies of "Stay Positive" on your site (or any non-preview tracks from the band’s new album – street date 14th July).

We do appreciate that you are fans of / are promoting The Hold Steady, but Rough Trade, Beggars and the artist would greatly appreciate your co-operation in removing your links to the pirate files in question.

Thank you for respecting the artist's and label's wishes and, if your readers want good quality, non-pirated, preview tracks, “Sequestered in Memphis” is available for fans and bloggers to stream / link to on the band’s MySpace ... .. check-out http://www.myspace.com/theholdsteady and http://www.theholdsteady.com for details on “Stay Positive” and the band’s 2008 shows and keep an eye out for details of further, preview material and exclusive content.

As you will appreciate, this e-mail is written on a without prejudice basis and, as such, all of our clients' accumulated, worldwide rights and remedies remain strictly reserved : please excuse this required formality.

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Ross said...

the line is "our psalms are sing a long songs".