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45th Favorite: Stay Positive, by The Hold Steady

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Stay Positive. The Hold Steady.
2008, Vagrant/Rough Trade. Producer: John Agnello.
Purchased, 2008.

IN A NUTSHELL: A rocking, energetic record that rates so highly because of Craig Finn’s lyrics and delivery. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay and guitarist Tad Kubler shine on songs that are Springsteen-y and Ramones-y, but it’s Finn’s oblique stories of small town sadness, love gone wrong, and reflections on how we treat one another that make it tick.
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
By 1993 I was 25 years old and still living in the small Pennsylvania town where I’d grown up. I was working at a good-paying but soul-crushing job at a local aspirin factory and feeling pretty depressed. The only reason I lived in that lousy place was that a) I’d grown up there; and b) my cool band was based nearby. But now my band had broken up; and having traveled up and down the East Coast playing music in big cities, I’d come to realize that the activities and people that cities had to offer were much more compelling to me than staying near family and friends. This was a sad thought, and so I felt depressed.

I’d always loved my hometown and its surroundings, felt pride in my culture and its idiosyncrasies, and extolled the virtues of rural life to anyone who cared to hear. But now I was thinking, “Of all the places to live in the world, what am I doing HERE?!” I wanted to make music, make jokes, make plays … I wanted to meet new people, hear new ideas … I wanted to go out for a goddamned cheeseburger at two in the morning without driving to the single, disgusting 24-hour diner within a 30 mile radius of my home.

I worked in the chemistry lab at the aspirin factory, putting to use the chem minor I’d gotten on a whim. It was one of the few pharmaceutical plants in the area, so many of the lab’s scientists commuted an hour or more from big cities like Lancaster and Harrisburg and Reading. One of these Big City scientists, Weenie Bill, aka Limulus, owned a house outside of San Francisco that needed a tenant, and after deciding that a vacant house in sunny CA was better than finding a place in windy Chicago, I agreed to move there in the spring.

About 70% of the workers at the aspirin plant were high school graduates who worked an 8-hour shift standing near big medicine-making machines and helping them as they mixed, formed, pressed and finally spat out pills. (Well, tablets, technically speaking.) Others helped machines that packaged materials or labeled bottles or readied products for shipping. Some drove forklifts, carrying ingredients and other materials to be loaded into the machines.

The rest of us were college graduates (mostly) who worked in the lab (mostly) in nominal 8-hour shifts, although science experiments aren’t as reliable as all that machinery, and so the hours varied.

There was a bit of a divide between the factory machinery helpers and the laboratory experiment runners, and it essentially boiled down to this: neither group really understood what the other was doing, nor could either group appreciate the day-to-day challenges the other faced. The company endeavored to maintain a Corporate esprit-de-corps; but everyone just feigned solidarity, in the way kids at church pretend to pray so they don’t get scolded. Beneath the irritating, glossy film of compulsory harmony, a struggle of “unskilled, machine-watching louts” vs. “snobby, clean-handed nerds” prevailed.

I was friendly with a couple of the forklift drivers. As a kid I’d played little league baseball against one of them, and during breaks the three of us sometimes talked about sports, and I’d politely laugh when they made fun of my rock and roll hairdo, since it was invariably a prelude to effusive compliments on the perceived success of my band. They’d call me “rock star” or “college boy,” gentle knocks on my pursuits and my prospects. (It never occurred to me to in kind call them “bar-fly” or “dead-end.”) When I told them the band was kaput and I was moving to California in a few months, their gentle knocks turned a bit more pointed.

The ribbing remained all-in-good-fun ball-busting, of the type most men have to learn to either join in or crumple beneath. However there was now a tinge of true ridicule for my failed band, an I-told-you-so air that mocked not only its demise, but also whatever personal beliefs and interests I’d held that had ever led me to think that playing in a rock band was a worthwhile endeavor. “I guess you won’t go on tour with Poison after all!” My impending move to California was belittled as an attempt to be a movie star, or to “[have sex with] those hot California chicks.” As faux-nasty as they got, however, the burns usually included a put-down of themselves, as well, along the lines of “You’ll be back here with the rest of us losers in no time!”

As my last day at the factory approached, I tried to say goodbye to as many people I knew as possible. I could find only one of the forklift guys when I made my rounds, the less abrasive of the two, so we chatted a little bit and he shook my hand and wished me good luck. “I hope it works out for you out there,” he said. “Good for you for getting out of this shit hole.”

“Well, I guess I have to chase my dreams,” I said.

He scoffed, quite audibly. I braced for a barbed reply, but this time it wasn’t me he was disparaging. “At least you have some dreams,” he said. Then he added, “I don’t know why I stay here.”

Small town life presents a conundrum, particularly to those folks who have generations of roots in the ground. You love it, but you loathe it. It feels like an everything that’s full of nothing. You want to escape but you don’t know how or where to go. And anyway, from a practical viewpoint, if you don’t have a skill or an education that is portable or broadly useful; if you don’t have the means to coast for a while on a little bit of savings; if all you’ve ever known outside a bus trip or two to the nearest Big City is the little place you’ve woken up in for as long as you can remember, among folks who’ve always been there … well, no matter how urgent that feeling is to “get out of this shit hole,” you probably can’t even conjure an idea of a life somewhere else that isn’t built on a foundation of fantasies including a PowerBall ticket, an unknown rich aunt, or a not-catastrophic-but-bad-enough accidental injury.

The world you see every day tells you that the dreams in your heart are no more substantial than those in your brain while you sleep. But still you hold onto them for as long as you can, no matter how frustrated or angry they make you. “I could really do something special,” your heart says. “You’re a dipshit,” says your head. These are probably universal feelings, but in a small, rural town your head has a lot more evidence on its side of the argument. Look around and you just don’t find many examples of folks who’ve actually chased dreams and caught them. You’ll have very few neighbors with kids writing for magazines in Manhattan; few relatives starting biotech companies in strip malls; few friends traveling to Italy to get an MFA in painting.

In this setting, as your own aspirations are ground down to a tiny, pointless stub, it becomes easy to reflexively respond to others’ dreams with a joke or a dig, both at the other’s dreams (“You’ll be back …”) and at your own perceived failure (“… with us losers”). If someone does set off on a chase, you might graciously wish them luck; but a part of you hopes they come back defeated, as most of them do, to help validate your decision to leave the dreams behind and just adapt to the shit-hole. After all, the shit-hole has bars and Turkey Hill stores and all those assholes you’ve known since kindergarten who you call friends. And to be clear, it wasn’t only the machine-watchers who felt this way; the experiment-runners did, as well. They just weren’t as overt with their opinions.

The band The Hold Steady captures this conundrum of small town life in their songs and lyrics better than any rock band I’ve heard. But while some songs and artists may come down firmly on one side of the “escape/adapt” question or the other, The Hold Steady presents slice-of-life vignettes without judgment. And the album Stay Positive presents them brilliantly. The opening track, “Constructive Summer,” says all this better in less than three minutes than I just did in a few hundred words.

The opening guitar is a clarion call to music fans who like their rock music equal parts Punk- and Arena-. The drums join in, as does Franz Nicolay’s piano. Nicolay may be the star of the entire album, with his keyboards giving all the songs a sort of E Street Band texture that sounds terrific. I’m not a huge Springsteen fan, but I recognize the sound and I like it behind Craig Finn’s voice. Of course, it’s Finn’s voice and lyrics that carry the song, right off the bat beautifully comparing his posse to a song: “Me and my friends are like/ The drums in “Lust for Life.” If you know the song, you know what he means – even though I can’t describe it. The lyrics evoke with frightening precision my small town, pre-move feelings: the imagery of drinking on water towers to escape working the mill until you die; the admonition to “Let this be my annual reminder/ That we could all be something bigger;” the knowledge that “Getting older makes it harder to remember/ We are our only saviors…” It’s a sing-along, drunk-inspiring song that sounds happy, but is actually quite sad. The listener knows right away that these guys ain’t building ANYTHING this summer, that it’s just another dream to squash before it disappoints you. The music behind the lyrics kicks ass, too, driving and fast, with really cool, squealing guitar harmonics throughout from Tad Kubler, for example at 0:26.

Way back at the beginning of this list I discussed how I found out about The Hold Steady, through a sister-in-law’s generous music dump. By 2008 I was a big fan of the band, in particular the two albums Boys and Girls in America and Separation Sunday. When their new album, Stay Positive, was announced I was ready – I think I bought it the first week it was out. I always liked the band’s guitar-based sound and Craig Finn’s shouting singing style. And I especially liked his lyrics.

I’ve been a big fan of Steely Dan for a long time, and many of Finn’s lyrics are reminiscent of that band’s oblique lyrical approach, in which the listener isn’t privy to all the details, yet is left with an unmistakable story of something that went down. “Sequestered in Memphis” has such a story.

It’s an upbeat song with dense guitars and pianos, and more cool organ from Nicolay just as Finn’s voice starts. It’s a story of … well, something happened, the authorities got involved, and now he’s telling the story to the cops. Kubler tosses in a few cool riffs, and the band imports some trumpets to bolster the sound. It’s a fun song to belt, as even Muppet band Dr. Teeth and the Electric Mayhem know!

A song with similarly inscrutable, yet kind of familiar, lyrics is “Navy Sheets,” which opens with a great riff and swirly, Head East-style synth.

While The Hold Steady is definitely a guitar band, the guitars are typically more riff-y and rhythmic than lead, guitar-hero style. But this song has a cool solo from Kubler at about 3:00. Finn shouts the words, as usual, but there are some nice harmonies throughout.

Another song with Steely Dan lyrics is “Slapped Actress,” a heavy, mid-tempo song that references an old 70s film, Opening Night, to reflect on … a desperate addict? Life on the road? I don’t think the specific story is what’s key – it’s more about the feelings the story gives you.

Throughout the band’s history, Finn’s lyrics have had strong references to his Catholic upbringing and faith. The mystical sounding “Both Crosses” is such a song.

It’s a gentle, spooky song, with distant Theremin and terrific, subtle drums from Bobby Drake. Finn nearly sings on this song, with lyrics, again, that are indirect, inviting multiple listenings. I’m not well-versed in Catholic spiritual practices and terminology, but it seems to be about a girl who’s witnessed something horrible, and her faith both helps and hinders her recovery from it. I like the descending chords, around 2:08, so faint you almost miss them. It’s moody and nonchalantly intense (to coin an oxymoron), and one of my favorite songs on the album.

I also like another slow, countrified song on the album, this one, too, with spiritual undertones, “Lord, I’m Discouraged.”

Nicolay’s piano is sweet and fills in nicely. It’s lyrically straightforward this time, about the girl who got away, and whether the boy, or God, could’ve done more to help her with her problems. The centerpiece is Kubler’s solo, at about 3:00. It’s a powerful song, performed brilliantly.

However, the songs that connect most with me are the poignant descriptions of small-town life, and what it can do to people – those who’ve lived there forever, and those new to the environs. Such a song is the wonderful “One For The Cutters,” about the relationship between transient college students and the “invisible” townie lifers who share their space.

It’s a true ballad, as defined for me by Mrs. Petrey in ninth grade Language Arts. Nicolay’s harpsichord is the dominant instrument in this waltz behind Finn’s tale of a college girl “slumming” it among the townies. (The cutters of the title references the terrific film Breaking Away.) I won’t give the whole story away, but the sad finale is that the young woman who seemed to feel so at home among the townies she’d secretly befriended was actually just using them to briefly remedy her boredom.

“Joke About Jamaica” is a witty reference to a Led Zeppelin song that’s used as a jumping off point for a woman’s feelings about growing older in a small town. It captures perfectly the yin and yang of the happiness of nostalgia and the sadness of aging, particularly if you grew up as a classic rock fan.

The title track is another sing-along song with cool shouting from Finn once again. (For you Hold Steady fans, it also references the famous “Holly,” who still maintains she’s gonna have to go with whoever’s gonna get her the highest.) “Yeah Sapphire” has a great opening riff, and turns into a decent Springsteen ripoff.

When the album was released, three “bonus tracks” were included. Even though I stated in my rules that I wouldn’t use bonus tracks as a means of rating albums, I broke the rules once again. I just love the bonus song “Ask Her For Adderall,” and if I were in The Hold Steady, I’d have included it on the main album over some of the others.

There are Steely Dan lyrics. (Who’s he talking to? Who’s bringing the medicine? What happened?) There’s a rocking, straightforward punk tempo. There’s more guitar cranking. There’s another reference to Holly. All three bonus tracks are great, but this one particularly shines.

We’ve all gotta come from somewhere, right? From the very beginning we have no say in the matter of where we live; and when we finally reach an age when we can decide, for many of us it’s long after years of indoctrination in an established community, so we really have little choice at all. Some of us may be right where we started out, happier than ever; hometown life has its charms and its benefits, after all. But for certain people, with certain dreams – or maybe especially UN-certain dreams – a hometown is a place designed to escape from. The Hold Steady understand that – and Stay Positive puts that happy sadness into song.

TRACK LISTING
“Constructive Summer”
“Sequestered In Memphis”
“One For The Cutters”
“Navy Sheets”
“Lord, I’m Discouraged”
“Yeah, Sapphire”
“Both Crosses”
“Stay Positive”
“Magazines”
“Joke About Jamaica”
“Slapped Actress”

plus (included together as one “Bonus Track” on the CD)

“Ask Her For Adderall”
“Cheyenne Sunrise”
“Two-Handed Handshake”

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100th Favorite: Boys and Girls In America, by The Hold Steady

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Boys and Girls in America. The Hold Steady.
2006, Vagrant Records. Producer: John Agnello
ADDED TO MY COLLECTION: ca. 2011.

album cover 100

IN A NUTSHELL –
nut
Driving guitar rock with a 70s feel. Great, wordy lyrics tell stories about young adults, warts and all.
Singer might not be everyone’s cup of tea. Would have been higher on the list if I’d listened to it more
– it got overshadowed in my collection by other albums by this band.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

This record is by my favorite band from the “new life” era that was created for me when my “old life” was suddenly, and coldly, ripped away by the announcement
expectant – and the subsequent associated all-encompassing thoughts, plans, activities, and emotions – that my wife was pregnant.

In the late 90s, my wife and I lived in San Francisco, in a neighborhood that had been named among “the hippest” in the US and Canada by the Utne Reader. Probably NOT because of the fact that we lived there, but who knows? We are extremely hip.

couple

We went to multiple Farmers’ Markets each weekend, ate brunch at Boogaloo’s or Spaghetti Western, or some other equally-funky cafe, spent our evenings going to pottery class (her) or performing improv (me), saw several movies a month, cooked healthy food, hiked in Marin, or rode our bikes to the beach (on a squiggly route that actually avoided all of The City’s hills). We checked our Juno.com email accounts every couple days (preferably at times when we weren’t expecting phone calls, since the dial-up internet tied up the phone) by launching a program that was separate from our Netscape browser, on a computer with 512 MB of memory (that we thought was way more than we’d ever need) that our tech-savvy friend had recently loaded with cool sound clips from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Cities and towns were finally starting to recycle, decent (not excellent, but at least drinkable) coffee was finally becoming available everywhere, and Greg Louganis had recently come out, and it didn’t seem to alter my parents’ appreciation and admiration for his diving accomplishments. Life, both within our relationship and in the Clinton Blow Job world around us, was bulging with hot, squirming, exhilarating potential. The Dream of the 90s was alive and well.

I was making an effort to stay up-to-date with music and musicians, to find new acts I liked and discover records I’d overlooked. I can remember feeling proud that I had purchased several CDs released in 1997 (including Dig Me Out, OK Computer, and When I was Born for the 7th Time) and it wasn’t even 1998 yet.

Then mid 1998 hit, and a baby was due, and that old life gradually, but surely, ended. Somehow, music – which had always been extremely important in my life – became less so. Well, that’s not exactly right. NEW music became less important to me. I continued listening to the music I knew, and started to buy more CDs from the artists I’d always loved, but I wasn’t keeping up to date on the latest records by the newest bands. Suddenly, finding a decent rocking chair (no, wait … a decent GLIDING rocking chair (with gliding ottoman!!)

glider

god forbid my kid be forced to rock like everyone rocked for millennia before him) became more important than finding a decent rocking band.

And for a good 8 or 10 years, I didn’t really know much of what was happening in music. I picked up some music I liked from newer acts, like The White Stripes and The Strokes,
white stripes

strokes

but I didn’t become a “fan” of any newer acts, not in the way I’d typically dived into musical acts in the past, the way I did with Yes or Rush or The Beatles or R.E.M. or The Replacements or Elvis Costello. I wasn’t able to invest the time and energy into a band the way I had in my “old life.”

listening

Sometime around 2007, after getting tired of all my whining about not knowing any new artists, my young, hip sister-in-law, Johanna, gave me a bunch of new music to listen to, and among the batch of records was Separation Sunday, by The Hold Steady. I got hooked on it, and have become a fan of the band, almost like back-in-the-day.

There are two things about The Hold Steady that draw me to them: instrumentation and lyrics. And both characteristics are grandly on display on Boys and Girls in America.

The band employs a double guitar attack, with some keyboards thrown in – not loopy, atmospheric, techno keyboards, but recognizable piano and organ sounds. Most of the songs are driving rock, reminiscent of 70s classic rock, but not blues based – they don’t sound like they’re trying to emulate The Allman Brothers, or Grand Funk Railroad. Although the instrumentation is 70s rock, the songs are more pop-punk in structure.

Here’s a video for the first song on the album, “Stuck Between Stations,” which is a great example of what you get with The Hold Steady:

The song has guitars and bass cranked up loud, thumping drums, and nice piano fills, and displays the typical Hold Steady vocal style of cramming lots of words into a small space, and nearly singing, but mostly speaking, in an energetic fashion.

If you watched that, you probably noticed the band’s … well, distinct-looking singer, Craig Finn.

craig finn

Mr. Finn continues the long line of nerdy lead singers that tend to populate many of the bands I really like, like Elvis Costello, XTC’s Andy Partridge, R.E.M.’s Michael Stipe, and Geddy Lee of Rush.
elvis costello

andy partridge

stipe

geddy lee


Craig Finn has a voice that probably will divide listeners, some finding it interesting, others dismissing its nasally, speaking-not-singing qualities. I like it, but more than his voice, I love his lyrics. The Hold Steady tend to sing about stupid young people trying to have fun, but oblivious to the fact that maybe their “fun” won’t feel like “fun” the next day. On initial listening, many of their songs seem to be about partying, getting high, being young and indifferent and simply out for a good time. For example, check out “Massive Nights.”

But if you look at the lyrics – and more importantly, listen to how Finn sings them – the good times don’t really sound like they’re all that good. The song describes a drunken, druggy prom date between the singer and a girl, and intersperses the story with reminiscences of all the “massive nights” he and his friends have had (“we had some massive highs/we had some crushing lows/we had some lusty little crushes/we had those all ages hardcore matinee shows”), but ends with an image that – whether a true description of events, or a metaphor for either a sex act or drug use or lost hopes – leaves the listener feeling that maybe those massive nights were massive because they were intended to obscure real problems:

“she had the gun in her mouth/she was shooting up at her dreams/when the chaperone said that we’d been crowned the king and the queen”

But the best part of the song is that it sounds great, and is fun to sing along to! It’s got a bouncy beat, nice harmony background vocals and those 70s guitars. It has a great energy, and even if you’re not some dork who’s into lyrics, there’s a lot to like about the song.

Another track in a lyrically similar vein is “Chillout Tent.”

In this story, which is probably familiar to all fans of live music who were young and dumb once upon a time, two college-age kids, a boy and a girl (the album is named Boys and Girls in America, after all), separately attend an outdoor concert, and after nearly overdosing end up meeting, and finally making out, in the venue’s infirmary, or “Chillout Tent.”

“They started kissing when the nurses took off their IVs/It was kind of sexy but it was kind of creepy.”

The boy and the girl seem indifferent to their near deaths, and instead sing about the “cool girl” and “cute boy” they met, while enthusing that the nurses at the tent “gave us oranges and cigarettes.” The chorus is sung in the first-person, by guest vocalists Elizabeth Elmore (of the band The Reputation) and Dave Pirner (of Soul Asylum), adding to the overall impact of the song, another one in which young people make bad choices but intend to party on, nonetheless.

But wait! Despite the lost dreams, bad decisions and next-morning regrets, the album isn’t a bummer! I over-analyze these things, I know. It’s a rock record, with strong songs, pounding beats, and in-your-face 70s rock guitars. The best part of Boys and Girls in America is that it’s a fun record, and nearly all the songs are sing-along gems – despite saps like me poring over lyrics and putting interpretive turds into this punchbowl of great songs.

punchbowl

Chips Ahoy” is about a horse race, and the singer’s attempts to get romantic with a woman who seems far more interested in horse racing than romance, despite his attempts to get her high.

You Can Make Him Like You” is a straight-ahead rocker that sounds to me like a feminist call to arms, mocking the notion that a woman should leave the “difficult” parts of life – like knowing directions home, or intellectual pursuits – to her man.

First Night” is a piano ballad about missing an ex, featuring characters who appeared in songs from their previous album, Separation Sunday.

hold steady concert poster

There’s a humor to the band (if you watch to the end of the video for “Stuck Between Stations,” you’ll see it), and a desire to have a wild, fun time – even if the wild fun has consequences. I don’t know why songs about youthful bad decisions make such a connection with me. There are many parts of my younger self that I’d like to forget (as I’ve written about before), and even though the lyrics to these songs can make me cringe with self-recognition, I am strangely drawn to them.

The band is frequently compared to Bruce Springsteen. I never really “got” Springsteen, maybe because when I first became really aware of him, his ass was ubiquitous in America, and I decided he was too popular for me to like; or maybe because my first serious girlfriend, M, of New York Cheesecake fame, was a Springsteen nut, and I was too immature to deal with her love for another man. But I know people who love him tend to love his songs for the stories of lost youth, faded glory and ambiguous memories set to a driving beat and hooky melodies. And if that’s the case, then I understand the comparison completely.

The album has a youthful energy, and evokes in me memories of what it was like to be young and free and unencumbered. Maybe that’s why I got so into them after my “old life” was left behind – to help me remember those feelings. And maybe the lyrics’ subtext of the ugly truth behind the memories appeals to me because I know that the “old life” wasn’t really always as wonderful it seems. In fact, I’ve had some “Massive Nights” of a different kind as a dad.

bedtime

TRACK LISTING (and some lyrics):
Stuck Between Stations (“She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian/She was a damn good dancer but she wasn’t all that great of a girlfriend”)
Chips Ahoy!
Hot Soft Light (“It started recreational/It ended kinda medical/It came on hot and soft and then/It tightened up its tentacles”)
Same Kooks
First Night
Party Pit
You Can Make Him Like You (“You don’t have to deal with the dealers/Let your boyfriend deal with the dealers/It only gets inconvenient/When you wanna get high alone”)
Massive Nights
Citrus (“Lost in fog and love and faithless fear/I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere”)
Chillout Tent
Southtown Girls (“Southtown girls won’t blow you away/But you know that they’ll stay”)

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