Sound: The Hold Steady hasn't been a stranger to critical raves since it formed in 2000, but finding its way into the mainstream public's hearts hasn't come to complete fruition yet. With it's latest record Stay Positive, there might just be enough catchy hooks, witty lyrics, and solid musicianship to seal the deal. The band has been recognized by critics for its clever storytelling and unusual musical nuances, and those aspects are still very much present on the new album. What may be the biggest hurdle is embracing frontman Craig Finn's distinctive vocal style, which isn't the easiest to swallow. But all in all, the impressive instrumentation featured in the record's 11 tracks keeps things fresh.
It should be said that there is a Bruce Springsteen/E Street Band-like quality to many of The Hold Steady's songs, and that in itself is impressive. Each track feels like a big production with thick piano lines, saxophone in parts, and effects-heavy guitar lines, but at the same time there is an earthy, working-man feel. If you remove Finn's vocals, there are times where you could absolutely hear Springsteen taking over the singing duties. To their credit, however, The Hold Steady often takes a more adventurous route musically, trying out sounds and instruments that you just don't get with most bands.
One For The Cutters is a prime example of the band's experimentation, using a harpsichord rather than traditional keys for much of the song. The instrument gives the track a very eerie, gothic sound, but it never gets too much thanks to Finn's vocals, which keep things pretty grounded. Joke About Jamaica is all over the place musically, at times focusing on organ-like keys, then exploding with a talk box solo. There's something unexpected around every corner, and that is one of the band's greatest strengths.
There are a few tracks that scream single material, and the band does know how to write a catchy chorus. The title track features the classic whoa-whoas that always make for a fun sing-along, while there are enough clever lyrics to keep it entertaining. Finn's voice is at the center of it all, and depending on the person, you'll love it or hate it. His style lies somewhere between Randy Newman and Jakob Dylan, and it can be a bit overpowering at times. // 9
Lyrics: The songs' lyrics are what truly takes The Hold Steady to a different level. The band's first single Sequestered In Memphis is told as if Finn is interrogated, and it makes for some pretty interesting storytelling. Finn sings, In barlight, she looked alright; In daylight, she looked desperate; That's alright, I was desperate, too; I'm getting pretty sick of this interview. Even more memorable is the closing track Slapped Actress, which offers up the unusual line: Sometimes actresses get slapped; Sometimes fake fights turn out bad. // 10
Overall Impression: It's understandable why The Hold Steady has made a mark on critics, particularly considering that the lyrics have obviously been written with plenty of care and thought. There's an earthy feel to The Hold Steady and you could easily see them rocking out at some small bar, but at the same time the band is obviously way past that stage. The production value (complete with ornate piano lines, and well, a harpsichord) is extremely impressive and deserves to be heard by a much larger audience this time around. // 9