Published on February 25th, 2007 | by Hans Fruck0
Boys and Girls in America — The Hold Steady
The Hold Steady’s latest album, Boys and Girls in America, surfs to these shores on waves of acclaim. It featured in many a best-of-2006 list and, in the minds of many critics, confirmed The Hold Steady to be the heirs apparent to the reigning king of rock-Americana, Bruce Springsteen. It’s a title that The Hold Steady court. They’ve embraced their reputation as troubadours to a certain brand of hard-living white America (even their album title comes from Jack Kerouac’s Beat classic On the Road).
The Hold Steady are nothing if not storytellers. Their songs are heavy with lyrics and thick with smart turns of phrase and arresting images: “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together/sucking off each other at the demonstrations/making sure their makeup’s straight/crushing one another with colossal expectations”. Finn reserves his best couplet, and some nifty alliteration, for Citrus, where he sings: “Lost in fog and love and faithless fear/I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere”. It’s literate stuff, and that’s its strength. The Hold Steady seek to engage not just tapping toes, but grey cells too.
It’s easy to see why so many have embraced The Hold Steady and Boys and Girls in America. They’re sharp observers, and their stories of romance and disappointment will strike a chord with a bunch of people. The songs evoke a palpable sense of place, time, and character. And when The Hold Steady match their lyrics with catchy tunes on First Night, Southtown Girls, and Citrus, the results are undeniably cool.
But it’s just as easy to foresee all the suppressed yawns that this record is gonna elicit. Craig Finn’s vocals ain’t gonna cut it with a lot of people – he talks his lyrics as much as he sings them. And so focussed is the band on his beer-soaked stories that the music often seems incidental, nothing more than a dull soundtrack to his wordy musings.
The Springsteen comparison is inevitable and maybe a bit lazy. But it’s enlightening too. Fact is, Finn’s undoubted skills as a lyricist aren’t matched by anything approaching Springsteen’s musical chops. Referencing Springsteen and Kerouac is pretty heavy baggage for any band to carry around. And simply put, The Hold Steady ain’t equal to the task.