The Hold Steady has had their basic shtick down since day one: classic rock riffage mixed with “singer” Craig Finn’s 21st-century hyper-literate rants. When people finally took notice last year, Finn became the poet-laureate for big-hearted fuck-ups, a sketchy Springsteen for dudes in their late twenties coupled with a band that makes the E-Street Band look like they’re trying too hard. Now, just when you thought the Hold Steady couldn’t get any better, America’s most articulate bar band has learned the fine art of the chorus.
From lead single ‘Chips Ahoy!’ to the delinquent prom night narrative of ‘Massive Nights’, the band shows off it’s well-honed chops, peppering the songs with huge back-up vocals and the type of gigantic sing-alongs that can reaffirm one’s faith in rock and roll. After simmering in the back of the mix over two records, Franz Nicolay’s keyboard, piano, and accordion are at the forefront of the Hold Steady’s sound, adding both grace and a bit of prog grandeur to the affair.
And then there are the ballads: the sort of songs that just shouldn’t work for a band like this. Channeling the tender side of Zeppelin or the Stones, Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler’s humbled acoustic reading of ‘Citrus’, with its atypically emotional coda of “I’ve had kisses that made Judas look sincere,” comes off as their most personal songwriting to date and still manages to fit perfectly within the band’s snarky canon. The extended jam of ‘Southtown Girls’ balances things at the other end of the spectrum. It’s a near-perfect album-closer with bombastic guitar solos, rousing harmonies, and a loose narrative that leaves most of the details to the listener’s imagination. Even with guest turns from MN crony Dave Pirner and some mildly irritating vocals from Elizabeth Elmore, ‘Chillout Tent’ — which feels like a drug-addled version of ‘Summer Nights’ from Grease — isn’t enough to bring down Boys and Girls. It does make us realize that Finn’s words sound best coming from his own mouth.
So maybe it’s time we stop calling the Hold Steady a “bar band,” and start heralding them as a beacon of consistency in a scene where bands are burning out after their first EP.