Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Hold Steady - Stay Positive

The following is a re-post of a review which ran in June, around the time of this album's digital release. The physical release is today, July 15th.

The Hold Steady
Stay Positive (Vagrant, 2008)
Grade: B

I really like not knowing how to feel about something. It's nice; open-ended. So I guess I should be glad that I'm having a tough time beginning to conceive of how I should feel about Stay Positive.I remember being 16 and getting a copy of R.E.M.'s Fables of the Reconstruction on vinyl as opposed to CD out of strict economic necessity – used LPs were three for two bucks at a local used book and music store. I had to huddle in my parents freezing basement to listen to it on the really nice speakers.There's a bonding experience in that. Though it's one of my least favorite R.E.M. records, there's a sense that I suffered with that record, and, goddamnit, I'm going to love it for all it's worth.

Stay Positive evokes a similar feeling. I work weird hours, the only record store in town sells used records, and I don't have Internet at home. So getting the album really gave me the run-around. Having jumped through all the flaming hoops, ran from the rolling boulders and made it through the laser tripwires, I'm bonded to this record.

I'm glad it's a legitimately competent record, so I don't have to completely trash it. Eight spins in, I can say Stay Positive is my least favorite Hold Steady record, but I still like it. Both "Constructive Summer," a rallying cry for summertime productivity of some sort, and "Sequestered in Memphis" make for a super strong start, recalling the most straightforward and muscular moments off of Boys and Girls in America.

I'm not sure whether to say everything goes downhill from there or not. "One for the Cutters" paints a picture of townie life, which as someone in the town with a thriving townie population, feels gritty and accurate.

(The Hold Steady - "Lord, I'm Discouraged" - Live)

And therein lies the problem. Am I supposed to like the song because I can identify with it or because it's good? The harpsichord on the song is dramatic, if a little over-the-top. The songwriting just feels kind of thin and forgettable, so I'm pretty sure I'm into this song because I can relate to it. Of all their albums (and Lifter Puller's), Stay Positive is the least wrapped up in its own mythos. Holly? Charlemagne? Absent. Minneapolis? Exists in vague ghostings. But still, Craig Finn's lyrics are supremely identifiable; he makes it hard to separate where the affection for him ends and affection for the Hold Steady's music begins.

Other songs help the listener make that distinction a little easier. "Lord, I'm Discouraged" describes a universal scene: The deteriorating friend and the struggle to come to terms with all the issues around them. The drunken swagger of the piano and lazy guitar line give the impression that any progress made is entirely accidental – a drunkard's walk, if you'll let me use some statistics. For a song that I wasn't that keen on when I first heard it, I think it's come together really well.

The latter half of the album captures a Hold Steady we've seen glimpses of before – older, sadder and kind of tired. Musically, Stay Positive bounces between being riskier than any of their previous records and really conserving their earlier sound. "Both Crosses" calls to mind Fleetwood Mac (which is brave, considering how well they did Springsteen), but "Stay Positive" trips nostalgic, recycling lines from Almost Killed Me and punctuating them with Boys and Girls-style "Oh, oh"s. And it feels funny. I like it – at least partially due to the fact that I've heard it before. And I don't like it because it occupies this awkward transitory phase of confusion.

I'm more than a little disappointed that the album closes on a big old retread. "Magazines," "Joke About Jamaica" and "Slapped Actress" all feel a little too familiar, as if no progress has been made since their last album. I like the tracks well enough; I guess I was just hoping to be floored.

I guess that's the bottom line to the whole album: It's fine; it's competent. I like it all right. But I'm not blown away. It's probably my least favorite album in the Hold Steady catalog (maybe even the HS/Lifter Puller combined catalog) for the simple fact that I don't think it goes anywhere. Sure, it contains some of the biggest risks and gambles in their history, but not every poker hand is a winner; I'm not convinced they all pay out. I wish it was better, but it's still worth the eight spins I've given it. Is it going to be worth the next ten or fifteen I'll give it this weekend? Maybe...but then again, maybe not.

Stay Positive is available digitally now, through iTunes, but will not be available as a hard copy until July 15th.

The Hold Steady MySpace Page

(April Wright)



Anonymous Anonymous said...

Upon first listen, I was hoping that my "illegal" download was actually an elaborate joke played by the Hold Steady crew...like they leaked the wrong files just to mess with us...and that the actual release would be so much better. But after 3 listens, my confusion/disappointment has lifted...and I like the entire album. I found the last 3 songs to be what convinced me that all was not lost...and then came around on the other tunes the second and third time through. It's my least favorite Hold Steady record for now, too...but that doesn't mean it isn't pretty good. Here's to our next 20 listens sounding better and better each time!

1:54 PM  

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