1:1 The Hold Steady are from Brooklyn, N.Y.
1:2 This kind of music straight, raw, literate rock shouldn't come from NYC. It should come from New Jersey. It should come from the heartlands. It should come from Texas.
1:3 It would not be out of place in California, where everything is out of place. It would not be unexpected of St. Louis, where no one bothers to expect anything. It is all about Minneapolis. It is all about America, and America is all about It.
2:1 I am not a prophet or a fanatic about the Hold Steady. Separation Sunday was impressive, as any concept album should be. What it was not, at least not all the time, was enjoyable. The music occasionally dawdled, the voice sometimes grated, the narrative often baffled. I liked it, but I never put it on.
2:2 I've almost completely forgotten Almost Killed Me.
2:3 Boys and Girls in America is a different beast, although little has
noticeably changed. Craig Finn, vocalist and lyricist, is still obsessed with
his Holy Trinity of Girls, Drugs and Lapsed Catholicism. He still seems to want
to create his own mythology...
2:4 ...with phrases like "clicks and hisses," "boys and girls in America" and "hot
soft" popping up multiple times, old characters from past albums reappearing
in his favorite local, next to the Mississippi River in Minneapolis/St. Paul,
Minnesota, sometime during his/your high school career.
2:5 Like Separation Sunday and Almost Killed Me, Boys and Girls is Bruce Springsteen and The Replacements as drunken bar band, which is exactly what they were anyway. The difference this time is that the Hold Steady consistently kick ass, nailing both Paul Westerberg's Teenage Yearning/Angst and Bruce's Common Man to a cross of Pure American Rock, unafraid of cliché, undaunted by the task of making the familiar exciting again.
3:1 "Stuck Between Stations" starts the album with an almost Bon Jovi-like lick. Pianos take over, and Craig Finn quotes Kerouac, slurring "Boys and girls in America, they have such a sad time together" before the snare thwacks and the guitars mass and everything is happy despite the national Damning.
3:2 This Rock heals all vice and sickness.
3:3 "We drink and we dry up and now we crumble into dust." Ahh, American life, how are you gonna keep it together?
4:1 Boys and Girls keeps on rockin' through its first four tunes, talkin' on girls and drugs, and on "Same Kooks," Finn brings in Gideon, a character from earlier albums... and it's here that you know that you can listen to Hold Steady and not pay attention like you're going to be tested.
4:2 Gideon's just a character. He's someone you think you should know. Maybe you do, maybe you don't, but he's just a guy with a past and problems.
4:3 Boys and Girls lets you get away with just rockin'. It's very pleasing.
It's all you want to do: tap your feet, shake your hair a bit, smile at the zingers
(like "You should have seen all these portals that I've powered up in," from "Hot
Soft Light") and revel in the AC/DC-level riffage that permeates the whole damn
5:1 "First Night" ups the ante. A ballad, it begins with this bass/piano motif
that is both gloomy and beatific, kind of like a prime Afghan Whigs soundscape,
and tells the tale of Charlemagne, Holly and Gideon (characters from Separation
Sunday), and their disintegrating lives and friendships. They reminisce on
their first night (together? at this bar? On these drugs? It's hard to say…)
from the perspective of tonight's diminished expectations.
5:2 But then the soundscape edges back to just piano chords and voice and then reemerges in a Brian Wilson-worthy metamorphosis as a total fist-pumping power ballad with electric guitars and strings, backing vocals ("White Noise!") and quickening drums and fucking AAAAUGHGHGHGHA!!!!
5:3 Damn. What a song.
6:1 What follows is a trio of power-pop classics, starting with "Party Pit," where the way Finn yelps "Bright new Minneapolis" seems more important than what he is saying about the place. "Gonna walk around and drink some more," he says, making it sound like the smartest thing ever said, so he decides to repeat it.
6:2 "You Can Make Him Like You" starts with a lovely mid-'80s Cure sound and completely gets away with it. "Massive Nights" is hokey, until its chorus takes "hokey" and stuffs it up your stuffy bum with plenty of "ooo-ahh-ooh" backing vocals.
6:3 "Citrus" is to Hold Steady/2006 as "Skyway" is to Replacements/1987; that is, a quick little stunner of a ballad from a source least expected.
7:1 If the Hold Steady were ever out to make an individual masterpiece, or maybe just a great single, it's surely "Chillout Tent." Finn plays puppet master to Dave Pirner and Elizabeth Elmore's dueling "I Saw You" advertisements. Both ads would read:
Where: The Chillout Tent at the festival, up in Western Massachusetts
When: After our respective overdoses
What: Oranges and Cigarettes, kissing when the nurses took off our IVs
7:2 After a few quick bass-drum hits, Finn sets a scene of girls, boys, drugs
and music, the back stories and attendant overdoses, while pianos flourish improbably
complex little runs and horns rise up and all Pirner and Elmore can do is talk
about each other and where their heads are at while Finn manages to include Tennyson
and Izzy Stradlin within one thought. This is dense stuff, but it goes down like
cotton candy and cheeseburgers.
8:1 "Southtown girls won't blow you away, but you know that they'll stay." So goes the chorus to "Southtown Girls," final track to Boys and Girls, perfectly matching said sentiment to an elementary rock, full of simple riffs and rhythms, guitar and harmonica solos.
8:2 Nothing stands in the way or looks down upon this simplicity; it is what it is, and that's a truth reflective of Boys and Girls and the Hold Steady on the whole. This is nothing more than what It is.
8:3 This is simply rock. But, It has the strength of that simplicity. It can stand up to anything. You bash against It, searching for weakness. You turn around, and turn It on again.
8:4 This is as good as American Rock gets, and that's a damn good thing.