Tuesday, December 30, 2008

(Trying to) Stay Positive

Album Review: Stay Positive by The Hold Steady

I have been meaning to write a proper review of this album since it came out back in July. Six months late is better than never, right? Actually, yes, since now I have had time to digest it and reflect on it, rather than making a snap judgment like I did on that sticky day in July when I picked Stay Positive up at the local HMV (which, unfortunately for my wallet, is a block from my apartment).

I was absolutely smitten with The Hold Steady's 2006 release, Boys and Girls in America. It was easily the best album of 2006, and, sorry Okkervil River, I still listened to it more than any other album in 2007. How can you argue with lyrics like "Lost in fog and love and faith was fear, I've had kisses that make Judas seem sincere" ("Citrus"), "He said “I’ve surrounded myself with doctors and deep thinkers, but big heads with soft bodies make for lousy lovers.”" ("Stuck Between Stations"), and "We kissed in your car and we drank from your purse." ("Massive Nights"). Yes, my expectations for Stay Positive were probably unrealistic.

But the songwriting is not what bothered me about Stay Positive. The songwriting is equally superb to BaGiA. And the songs friggin' rock. What kept this album from being my #1 of 2008 is me being a picky music snob. One of the many things that I love about The Hold Steady is singer Craig Finn's unusual and distinctive voice. Another band that has an incredible lead singer with an unusual and distinctive voice is Lucero, fronted by singer Ben Nichols. Ben Nichols sings backup on many of the songs on Stay Positive. Initially when I heard that Nichols was recording with The Hold Steady, I was as excited as a little girl waiting for Santa Claus to arrive. However, upon listening to the album, to my ears Nichols's voice really clashed with the rest of the band. I felt like I was listening to a Hold Steady/Lucero mash-up on some songs.

I know a lot of people are going to disagree with me on this, but I can't help it. Ben Nichols's voice on this album just doesn't work for me. Patterson Hood of the Drive-By Truckers, who also has a distinctive and unusual voice, also does guest vocals on "Navy Sheets" but his voice doesn't stick out like Nichols's does. When I saw The Hold Steady in concert back in November, these songs sounded a lot better without Nichols. Sorry Ben, I love you, and I love, love, love your first solo album (The Last Pale Light in the West, due for wide release in early 2009, but now available from the Lucero web site), but I like Stay Positive a lot better without you.

Analysis of a few of the standout tracks
1. "Constructive Summer"
A great sing-along song, especially live. "Double whiskey, Coke, no ice!!!" Two things bug me about this song. 1) Ben Nichols's backup vocals. 2) The lyric "Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer." Is Finn just praising Strummer because his name happens to rhyme with "summer?" If you do some research you learn that Finn is actually a huge Clash fan, but to me this lyric sounds a bit contrived. 4 Stars.

2. "Sequestered in Memphis"
This song could have been written by Ben Nichols, who happens to be from Memphis. What a great song. "In the bar light she looked all right; in the day light she looked desperate." You really hear The E Street Band influence in this track. 5 stars.

3. "One for the Cutters"
The Hold Steady version of a murder ballad, with keyboardist Franz Nicolay playing the freakin' harpsichord. How rock and roll is that? "The Cutters" is a reference to the 1979 movie Breaking Away, where the townies are the heroes of film. 5 stars.

5. "Lord, I'm Discouraged"
This is as close to a ballad as The Hold Steady gets, even though it a song about physical abuse. I don't think its as good a 2006's "Citrus," but a solid, albeit depressing, song nonetheless. 4 stars.

7. "Both Crosses"
One of the themes through all Hold Steady albums is the struggle between one's Catholic Christian upbringing and the sins of the real world. This song is another great example of that conflict. Listen for the banjo part played by J. Mascis. 4 stars.

8. "Stay Positive"
This song was my big "WTF?" moment when I first listened to it. The song is about trying to "stay positive" while on the endless drag of touring, practicing, song writing, etc., and is basically a tribute to the fans that kept the band members going through the rough patches (see also "Unless its Kicks" by Okkervil River for the same theme). The second half of the song is mostly lyrics from previous songs. Now that's just lazy. But I will give them props for mentioning 7 Seconds, a band that I used to sneak out of the house to see when I was 16 years old. 3 stars.

9. "Magazines"
I love this song. What a great lyric: "Magazines and daddy issues, I know your pretty pissed but I hope you still let me kiss you." But then Ben Nichols sneaks in. This song could be easily taken out of the Lucero library too. Compare this song with one from Lucero's most recent album:

Buy: Stay Positive (2008)

I Can Get Us Out of Here.mp3
Buy: Rebels, Rogues & Sworn Brothers (2006)

OK, maybe not the best comparison, but you get the point. Also, check out KEXP Live Performances for a recent podcast featuring the Hold Steady doing this song acoustically. Awesome. 5 stars (even with Ben's vocals).

The limited edition of the Stay Positive came with three bonus tracks, the best of which is "Ask Her for Adderall." The band has been playing this one live for a while, and its a kick ass rock song. 4 stars.

FYI - Adderall is a psychostimulant used to treat attention deficient disorder and narcolepsy, both of which can also be treated by attending a Hold Steady live show.

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