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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

They started as a marginal alternative rock band called Lifter Puller who wrote good songs about young losers who wanted more. They're now called the Hold Steady, a would-be arena rock band that writes better songs about the same thing, so says our music critic Robert Christgau.

(Soundbite of music)

ROBERT CHRISTGAU: Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together, Jack Kerouac once wrote. Hey, not always, rock and roll party people would reply. But half a century later, Kerouac has bestowed a title on a pretty darn good rock and roll album from the precinct of America called Brooklyn: Boys and Girls in America by the Hold Steady.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. CRAIG FINN (Hold Steady): (Singing) I got a girl and she don't have to work, she can (unintelligible) we spent the whole next week getting high. I love this girl but I can't tell when she's having a good time.

CHRISTGAU: Though they're dominated by a very Catholic guy from Minneapolis named Craig Finn, the Hold Steady are a true band - a noisy, expert guitar-keyboard-bass-drums combo. But this true band crams many words into not many seconds. And Finn isn't just prominent, he's a five-star loudmouth. Since Craig Finn can barely carry a tune, you'd think he'd be a music liability, but singers define words-first bands by definition. And in the great tradition that goes back to the Five Satins and the Still of the Night, Finn's limitations are more ear-catchingly musical than all the competence around him.

Focus in on the congested rush of these few lines from Stuck Between Stations, a song about another poet type from Minneapolis, John Berryman.

(Soundbite of song "Stuck Between Stations")

Mr. FINN: (Singing) It was that night that we stuffed the (unintelligible) in the (unintelligible). Will he live, will he die? He said (unintelligible) words but words won't save your life and they (unintelligible)...

CHRISTGAU: The Hold Steady's obvious influence is one you wouldn't expect from an act that's marketed as alt rock, because how else would you market them? As has been said many times, they sound like Bruce Springsteen.

(Soundbite of song "Stuck Between Stations")

Mr. FINN: (Singing) We drink and we dry up and now we crumble in (unintelligible)...

CHRISTGAU: To my taste, they've taken this a can of corn too far in the new record, as on this bit from Stuck Between Stations.

(Soundbite of song, "Stuck Between Stations")

Mr. FINN: (Singing) She was a really (unintelligible) she was a damn good dancer but she wasn't all that great of a girlfriend...

CHRISTGAU: Up against the sin and redemption on last year's Separation Sunday album, the lowlife tales of Boys and Girls in America are hyper-romantic, real beautiful loser stuff. But even so, Finn's narrative details and his boys' head-on a tack are a relief from all those jagged little bands where half-lit obscurities pass for lyrical wisdom.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. FINN: (Singing) There was a station (unintelligible) up in western Massachusetts and the kids came from miles around to get messed up on the music. And she drove down from (unintelligible) with a carload of girlfriends to meet some boys and maybe eat some mushrooms. And they did and she got sick, now she's turning way too shaky. She don't wanna tell the doctor everything she's taken...

CHRISTGAU: Boys and Girls in America have such a sad time together isn't as universal a truth as Kerouac as Finn want you to believe. But because Finn is a committed rock and roller, he knows things about the young and the alienated that neither Kerouac and Berryman, or most of their modern literary equivalents, graph so concretely.

Finn's stories may not be fully representative, demographically accurate, but they're vivid and convincing and sociologically disturbing, and absolutely they are sad.

(Soundbite of song)

Mr. FINN: (Singing) His friend gave him four but he said only take one, but then he got bored and he ended up taken all four. (Unintelligible) got bored anyway, the paramedics found him, he was shaking on the side of the stage. Everything was spinning and I can't do...

NORRIS: The CD by the Hold Steady is called Boys and Girls in America. Our reviewer is Robert Christgau.

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