The Hold Steady | Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant)

Springsteen's kids didn't hang out at the mall and they certainly weren't going to the chillout tent as kids do on Boys and Girls, but they were still bored, still looking for cheap thrills, and the Hold Steady's Craig Finn nails that.

 

holdsteady About two months ago I brazenly suggested to a friend that she listen to the new Bruce Springsteen CD of Pete Seeger covers. She reacted as if I had hopped right over mid-life crisis and gone to AARP-land, complete with cardigan sweater and funny ear hair. Ironically, this same friend was the one who introduced me to her favorite Minneapolis band when we both lived there at the end of the ’90s. This band, Lifter Puller, would become the Hold Steady. The Hold Steady, with their new release Boys and Girls in America, have justifiably become the new Boss.

Springsteen, for those of you too young to remember anything but his stadium alter-ego, erupted in the ’70s. That decade offered much in the way of bad leadership, poor polyester clothing choices (my own included), fatally wrong military involvements, and an economy that held little promise for the largest segment of the U.S. population: the middle class. The Boss, a New Jersey rocker, got it right. He tapped into those feelings of disenchantment and ennui that were taking hold. He turned those escape fantasies into damn good poetry, and that poetry into damn great songs.

Lifter Puller was a tight and fun band and Craig Finn, the chief poet in the band, was a sight to see. He looks more like an accountant on a bender than a lead singer, a man who can terminally never keep his glasses straight and who dresses from the Minnesota Twins' gift shop. But that man can tell stories and to watch him on the stage is to see a truly great lead singer. Lifter Puller broke up when the stories got too often recycled and the band stopped growing. Finn moved to NYC and, soon after, he and Lifter Puller guitarist Tad Kubler formed the Hold Steady.

From the start, the band has described itself as a bar band; this is akin to Ralph Steadman describing himself as an idle doodler. Their first album offered a stripped-down sound, but 2004's Separation Sunday showed a band that was growing in finesse and instrumental skill. Finn's lyrics had grown larger, with more succinct portraits and wry turns of phrase. With Boys and Girls in America, the band has sharpened it sound once again to offer music that is approachable and literate. It also has equal spotlight to Finn's singing so that he is the not always the focal point of the song. It is music about and for the same people: working class rock.

The only difference between Springsteen's and Finn's middle class is the decade. Springsteen's kids didn't hang out at the mall and they certainly weren't going to the chillout tent as kids do on Boys and Girls, but they were still bored, still looking for cheap thrills, and Finn nails that. That sense of disenchantment? Just listen to the brilliant opening track "Stuck Between Stations," and you will hear all the regret you need. Finn brings us to his beloved Minneapolis and introduces the doomed poet John Berryman (whose work shared Finn's fascination with religion) who took his life by jumping off the Washington Avenue bridge there in the early ’70s. In a brilliant piece of allegory about Berryman, Finn sings, "words won't save your life and they didn't so he died." The song lays a foundation for the rest of the album that deals with words, actions, and escape. Like much of what Finn has written in both Lifter Puller and Hold Steady, the characters are lost souls who place their bets on the weakest of hopes: gambling, drugs, drink, love, etc. Even when they win, their prize is often counterfeit. The song "You Can Make Him Like You" is especially sharp in looking at relationships as security: Why do the heavy lifting in life if you can just have your boyfriend do it for you? Hell, why even go to a good school, as one line relates: "You don't have to come from the right kind of schools/let your boyfriend come from the right kind of schools/you can wear his old sweatshirt, cover yourself like a bruise."

There is a small amount of redemption throughout the album, as with the song "Chillout Tent." The chillout tent is the place at concerts where they send the audience members who have had too much sun, drugs, or other substances and need to recover. The song seems homage to Grease's "Summer Nights," with the two damaged tent neighbors relating their brief love affair. Oddly enough, one of them is played by Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum. Alas, like much of the sweetness on this album, it is only temporary.

The album closes where it begins—in Minneapolis—with a call out to the main arteries in the city and the citizens who mean the most: the mall rats of "Southtown Girls." Life goes on, drugs are consumed, but there is one thing you can count on: "Southtown girls won't blow you away/but you know that they'll stay." Somewhere the Boss—and maybe also the poet Berryman—is smiling. A

{mos_ri:Hold Steady}

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