Hold Steady Stays 'Positive' Blender music critic Lizzy Goodman says she has an "absolute mad love" for the group Hold Steady.
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Hold Steady Stays 'Positive'

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Hold Steady Stays 'Positive'


Music Reviews

Hold Steady Stays 'Positive'

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Hey, it's New Music Tuesday. And given how things are going around here at the BPP these days, we thought about reviewing "Be Realistic," the new album by The Give Ups. Or maybe "Aim a Little Lower" from The No Use in Continuing, hot band out there, Wilmington, Delaware, ska scene. But that's not how we roll here. No, we're doing "Stay Positive," the new record from The Hold Steady. Hmm, Lizzie Goodman, great woman of the still-in-business Blender Magazine, is here with us. They put pretty girls on the cover. Maybe we should have done that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. LIZZIE GOODMAN (Editor at Large, Blender Magazine): That's one way to go to keep everyone interested.

PESCA: I think that works.

Ms. GOODMAN: Next time, "Stay Positive."

PESCA: "Stay Positive," as we said. "Stay Positive," Hold Steady. You, up to this point - I guess they're one of those bands that has - people either love them or hate them. Which camp are you in?

Ms. GOODMAN: Absolute mad love.

PESCA: Mad love?

Ms. GOODMAN: Yeah.

PESCA: How's "Stay Positive" different from what we've heard from The Hold Steady up to this point?

Ms. GOODMAN: Oh, it's really different. I mean, I think sonically, the differences are pretty obvious. It's - with the exception of a couple of sort of party-jam songs, there's zero songs on the album that have a party-jam theme, really.

PESCA: Right.

Ms. GOODMAN: That's sort of pure, and...

PESCA: As "Massive Nights," on the last album, did.

Ms. GOODMAN: I mean, that's what they've been famous for.

PESCA: Right, a song that's designed where everyone, you know, pumps their fist and goes, yeah!

Ms. GOODMAN: Yeah, but there are a couple that, sort of, you can get into that way, but the main difference is that sonically they're doing more experimenting on this album with different, sort of, styles. There's a sort of Carsey (ph) track on there. There's a lot more, kind of, '80s keyboards than even before, if that's possible.

PESCA: Well, their keyboard player, Franz, is in a sideband that plays, like, circus music.

(Soundbite of laughter)


(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: And that really shows up on this song, this first song.

Ms. GOODMAN: I think it's been filtrated.

PESCA: Yeah, "One for the Cutters." So, they are - they have this weird, vocal, talkback box on "Joke for Jamaica."

Ms. GOODMAN: Yeah, there's a lot of toys, and they haven't been a toy band before. But I think the thematically the differences are, sort of, even more obvious. It's really a song - it's really an album about whether rock 'n' roll will save you.

PESCA: It is explicitly and implicitly about that. Many - I mean, more than any band I can think of, they go meta. They understand what it is to be in a band. Their very first album started off with a positive jam, Then there was the song called "Certain Songs," about how important certain songs are.

Ms. GOODMAN: Right.

PESCA: Like, "Instant Nostalgia," so, you know, the whole The Hold Steady aims to sort of be a soundtrack - a soundtrack for your life. Here at the Bryant Park Project, we were thinking about this last night as we were drinking and toasting this show. So, this is the first song on the album. It's called "Constructive Summer." Let's hear a little bit of it.

(Soundbite of song "Constructive Summer")

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) Me and my friends are like, double-whiskey-Coke-no-ice. We drink along in double time. Might drink too much, but we feel fine We're gonna build something this summer. Gonna build something this summer.

This summer, grant us all the power to drink on top of water towers, With love, and trust, and shows, all summer. (Get hammered!) Let this be my annual reminder that we can all be something bigger...

PESCA: All right. So, there's so much - there's so much classic Hold Steady there. You have the point where the audience can yell, "get hammered."


PESCA: They always sing about drinking, and I've heard them in interviews saying, you know, people think that we drink all the time. And I heard Craig Finn, the lead singer, saying, you know, on all these blogs, every blog in America is like, I was out at a bar, and Craig Finn was hammered.

(Soundbite of laughter)


PESCA: And Finn was saying, if I got hammered as much as they say on blogs - but you know, on all their songs, they're talking about drinking.

Ms. GOODMAN: It's a little like, you know, the Violent Femmes complaining that no one thinks they ever get laid. You know? It's like, look, if you're going to sing about it all the time, regardless of whether you're actually doing it, people are going to think that. But it turns out, in keeping with the sort of new theme that's being revealed on this record, Finn has started jogging four miles a day.

PESCA: Oh, Lord.

Ms. GOODMAN: And they all have, sort of, apparently cut down on the whole - in keeping with the theme, cut down on the whole relentless partying thing. But the thing I love about that song, and that line got in there, is "let this be my annual reminder that we can all be something bigger." I mean, Finn is famous for sort of starting off these records with a thesis statement.

PESCA: Yeah.

Ms. GOODMAN: This is where I'm going with this. This is what I'm trying to say. And I think that pretty much sums it up. And that song really tells you what's going to happen in the rest of the album.

PESCA: Yeah, I mean, that song - so many of the songs do this. That song has the evocation of kind of suburban America.

Ms. GOODMAN: Sure.

PESCA: So, if you never climbed on top of a water tower and drank, you did it underneath the stadium, at the high school or somewhere, and it seems like you did. I don't know, maybe it's from "Dazed and Confused." So, it seems like it's going to be about a drinking song, but then you have the guy saying, you know, let this be my annual reminder, which is bittersweet, because he's always fooling himself, that we could all be something bigger, which is, like, OK, so it's different, but that's exactly the sort of thing after, you know, four beers in on top of your water tower, that you say. And then sonically, we heard the cue to pianos, which is why this band gets compared - one of the reasons why it gets compared to Springsteen a lot.

Ms. GOODMAN: Sure.

PESCA: When asked about this, Finn will always - he loves Springsteen. He'll take it as a compliment. I guess he's asked it so much, but do you think it's an apt comparison?

Ms. GOODMAN: Absolutely.

PESCA: Are there other bands they remind you of?

Ms. GOODMAN: Well, I mean, one of the things that's great, and you touched on this earlier, about this band is they - they're rock fans almost more than they are rock stars, so they tell you who their influences are. I mean, he was just talking about St. Joe Strummer.

PESCA: Yeah.

Ms. GOODMAN: It's like, they're not keeping those things secret. But I do think he's a lot like Springsteen, and I think the band is a lot like Springsteen on this record in particular, because it's really an album about, I mean, obviously, "Stay Positive," even the title is a little bit wry, you know? It's like this isn't - that's not something you say when things are going well, right?

PESCA: Yeah.

Ms. GOODMAN: So, to title it that is sort of a choice to remain committed to the salvation through music at a time when things are kind of dark. And I think that is a very Springsteen ethos, the idea of choosing to go yes as opposed to no, but nowhere is there a suggestion that things are good in the meantime. It's all about staying good.

PESCA: And he tells stories about people, often people making bad choices or choices that, you know, they have to live with. Craig Finn keeps coming back, not on this album, but he keeps coming back to three central characters. And you know, on The Hold Steady message board, there are theories that every album is a Rashaman (ph) and told from a different character's perspective. I don't think that's true, but he tells these stories, running through his songs is the Mississippi River, sort of like Highway 9 runs through Springsteen songs. But whenever you hear a rock band with piano, it's going to sound like Springsteen to a lot of people. My friend listened to this and was like, Springsteen? I see it, OK, maybe. This is Thin Lizzie.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GOODMAN: Well, he's right. I mean, I don't think he's wrong about that. There is - they're borrowing from all over the place. People often comment on the fact that although their sound is very, like, musically, specifically, it can be very kind of stadium rock, like Americana, like Springsteen. But I mean, look at - I mean, just listen to Finn's delivery. I mean, he's almost a rapper.

PESCA: Yeah.

Ms. GOODMAN: It's like, what is this? It's this sort of stream of consciousness. There's no real - the song structure in terms of the lyrics is as different from Springsteen as it could possibly be.

PESCA: He doesn't have a pretty voice.


PESCA: He can sing. He can hit his notes, but he doesn't have a pretty voice.

Ms. GOODMAN: Well, and that's one of the things that comes across with the character, is, at least for me, as a long time fan, one of the things I love about this band is that, I mean, do you feel like Finn is a rock star? It's, like, you feel like his characters are the rock stars. He sort of invents these alter egos that exhibit archetypes that we can all relate to, and you feel like he's relating to them as well.

PESCA: Yeah.

Ms. GOODMAN: That he's on your team, in the audience, with the beer, and the depression and, you know, the wife at home that maybe he doesn't like, and the Catholic ghosts in the closet that he doesn't...

PESCA: A lot of Catholicism, right.


(Soundbite of laughter)

PESCA: You know, he also - you can also hear him fall in love with the fact that Massachusetts rhymes with both music and Judas. I mean, he's great with the rhymes.

Ms. GOODMAN: Oh, yeah.

PESCA: So, you know, this gets to the real big question. You're a music critic. You love The Hold Steady. In 2006, "Boys and Girls in America" was, you know, named the number one album by most music polls. It sold something, like, just a little over 100,000 copies. Why is this band not more popular? I have a couple theories. What do you think?

Ms. GOODMAN: Well, I mean, that's where the Springsteen comparisons stop, right?

(Soundbite of laughter)


Ms. GOODMAN: If they were really - they should really take it that one step further and become sort of millionaires, gazillionaires.

PESCA: They should become more popular, yes.

Ms. GOODMAN: No, I mean, it's not - it's like - I think it's obvious. They think they're sort of - their sound isn't as marketable as many of the people that they've been compared to. And there is a pastiche thing going on with them that's what people compare them to - people compare Finn's lyrics to, and that rhyming thing, that sort of off kilter rhyming theme that you were just describing, to Stephen Malkemus of Pavement, the other great band that never sold any albums.

I mean, there is something that sort of - there's a detachment with them, even though they're in the moment, and there's this pure celebration of music, you're also aware. I mean, he starts off on the first album saying that, you know, he was bored when he didn't have a band, so he started a new band. It's like, this is very self-conscious music. And I think in that sense it can be a little disorienting and a little alienating for people who don't get the joke.

PESCA: Yeah, you're right. Lyrically, though, Springsteen had kind of changed, and now all of his lyrics are really spare. But of course, in the first album, it was just like a jumble of words. He was - when the first lyric on the first album is, like, mad man summer bummer, Indians in the summer, whatever that slew of words is.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GOODMAN: Rock haiku.

PESCA: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. GOODMAN: Right, yeah.

PESCA: So, Craig Finn does that, too. So, the big theories are his voice is really off-putting to people. People say that when they just give it a first listen. His spastic stage manager is not rock star, doesn't read as rock star like Springsteen. My theory is what you were talking about before. People want rock 'n' roll nostalgia. If you are raising a toast to St. Joe Strummer, why not just put on a Clash album?

Ms. GOODMAN: Right.

PESCA: Why talk about it meta?

Ms. GOODMAN: Well, and people who love The Hold Steady know why...


Ms. GOODMAN: But it's not obvious.

PESCA: You've got to bring everyone else along. So, let's do that through song. Here is - OK, let's use this next song, which is "Lord, I'm Discouraged," to talk - to listen to the guitar work, or Tad Kubler, who is pretty much half the band, along with Craig. This is "Lord, I'm Discouraged" from "Stay Positive."

(Soundbite of song "Lord, I'm Discouraged")

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) And I come to your altar, And then there's just nothing.

And she keeps insisting The sutures and bruises are none of my business. She says that she's sick, But she won't get specific. The sutures and bruises are none of my business.

This guy from the north side Comes down to visit. His visits, they only take five or six minutes...

PESCA: That song is a little more sincere...

Ms. GOODMAN: Yeah.

PESCA: Than a lot of rock 'n' roll and a lot of the rest of The Hold Steady.

Ms. GOODMAN: Yes, it is.

PESCA: The whole thing is also not - they're an un-ironic band. They're funny, but it's not about, oh, we're posing as - they believe it. Maybe?

Ms. GOODMAN: Right. I mean, that's the tricky thing about sort of what we were saying earlier. Just the idea that there is - they understand what they're up to, but they're also truly up to it. It's not as if there's this sort of distance between them and the music, that there's no irony. There's no, you know, winking. It's pure. It's pure love, but it's also - I mean, I always find the comparisons to the Catholicism to be really pure. Like, he was - he has a deep Catholic history, and the only thing that seems to rival his - the influence of Catholicism in Craig's life is rock, is music.

PESCA: Yeah.

Ms. GOODMAN: And so, it's like this worship. It really feels like you're worshipping with The Hold Steady at the altar of rock, as opposed to - I don't know what you're doing with Springsteen, as opposed to just, sort of, to watching him deliver this to you? There's the sense of community with Craig that's maybe a little off-putting in its own way. It's maybe a little too close to comfort.

PESCA: If you look at him, you're like, this guy is intense.

Ms. GOODMAN: Yeah.

PESCA: He's always making these gestures with his hands, and he's dancing around. He'll be on Letterman on Wednesday, if you want to check out what he's like live. The last time he was on, I think a lot of people were like, who the hell is this guy? So, here's one thing about the record, and this is indicative of the music business today. The album I hold in my hand is out today. This is New Music Tuesday.

Ms. GOODMAN: That's right.

PESCA: A month ago, they pretty much released most of the album except for three extra songs that are all bundled at the end of the disk called "Untyped."

Ms. GOODMAN: Right.

PESCA: You know, when I went to see them live, they said, our album is half out. What is the deal with their weird release schedules?

Ms. GOODMAN: You know, I don't know. I mean, in this day and age, obviously every minute, it seems, we're talking about some artist's new plan for how to, you know, fake out the kids and get them to go buy their album. And I don't know if that was part of the plan, to sort of get it out early, and...

PESCA: Well, I worry and wonder if it was leaked online, so they kind of...

Ms. GOODMAN: Sure. That's usually - that's the go-to that you think of when something comes out before its scheduled day, because this, as far as I know, was always the scheduled release date for their album, or at least, I mean, in recent history. So, I don't think - that's probably what happened. I don't know, but you know, it's all worth getting your hands on, if you ask me.

PESCA: So, as we said before, Giddy and Charlemagne, and Hallelujah are three characters who show up in all his albums. They're not on this album at all, until you get to the extras. Now, here's what's interesting. The first song on the extras is called "Ask Her for Some Adderall," Adderall, the study drug. Fans of The Hold Steady, like me, have heard this song live. They've been playing it for a year. In the live version - let's just play a snippet of that and listen for what you don't hear, references to those three characters.

(Soundbite of song "Ask Her for Some Adderall")

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) And if she wants to help the cause, Tell her we need tape and gauze. Tell her she should look through all her medicine To see if she's got Klonopin...

PESCA: All right, so no references to them. On the album version, listen to what you hear.

(Soundbite of song "Ask Her for Some Adderall")

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) If she asks, just tell her that we're too far gone to deal. She should know exactly how that feels. And if she wants a scene report, Don't tell her 'bout the kicked-in doors. Tell her they ain't even keeping score no more.

And if she wants to help the cause, Tell her we need sterile gauze. Tell her she should look through all her medicine To see if she's got Klonopin. Now, Charlemagne, don't scream in vain...

PESCA: Charlemagne.

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) Jimmy's scared of all this pain. You're still hiding from those gentlemen...

PESCA: What does gentlemen rhyme with?

THE HOLD STEADY: (Singing) Gideon.

PESCA: So, there you go. I mean, that's for the fans, right?

Ms. GOODMAN: You'd think. I mean, one of - yeah, it's like these - it sort of reminds me of "Fight Club," where, you know, he's got this alter ego, and it's like - he's trying to kill him off. Maybe these characters are gone for him.

PESCA: We could talk about it forever. I want to thank you, Lizzie Goodman, and I want to thank you all for listening. We've got a few more shows here on the BPP. I'm Mike Pesca. This is the Bryant Park Project from NPR News.

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