Boys And Girls In America
By: Eric Greenwood
Lyrics can often make or break a band. Even an otherwise rocking song can be destroyed by a few clumsy clichés. And since most bands have jumped right into emo's pandering, self-pitying cesspool of over-used lamentations, it's refreshing to listen to a band whose lyrics eschew all of that sensitive dreck in favor of the drunken ramblings of a music-obsessed fanboy. It's Craig Finn's conversational wordplay and observational deconstruction that keeps The Hold Steady from sounding like heartland music for rednecks.
Finn's not much of a singer. He's mostly a talker with little to no regard for traditional meter or orthodox phrasing, but he makes it work with his bizarrely nagging and persistent flow. If you closed your eyes and could block out Finn's stream of conscious brain scrambles, you'd swear you were listening to a Bob Segar "Like a Rock" commercial. Ok, maybe not quite that extreme, but The Hold Steady's music certainly mixes generic bar rock with pop punk flair, like Bruce Springsteen channeling The Replacements. And I swear I can hear some Bruce Hornsby thrown in there, too. I realize that this seems like the worst amalgamation of sounds imaginable, but Finn's dense stories unfurl out of your speakers so quickly, you can't help but need another take.
Finn's delivery is sloppy yet distinct, and it sounds completely off the cuff, often evoking Shane MacGowan's guttural rants, only twice as literate. Finn looks like a bloated Buddy Holly, and he speaks his mind so effortlessly and effectively. This is music utterly devoid of pretension, and by the same turn it makes so many bands look silly for trying to be so weird. It's not going to blow away any music theory geeks with its tinkering piano, power chords, and predictable changes, but that is because this music succeeds on a different level. It's gutsy and honest and hard to swallow, and every time I listen to **Boys and Girls in America**, I am blown away by its lyrical daring.
Admittedly, it took me more listens then I typically have the patience to allow not only to get into The Hold Steady but just to get it at all. Something kept me coming back- a curiosity I couldn't quite figure out. The band's second record, **Separation Sunday** was my introduction. I was instantly put off by Finn's ragged voice, incessantly firing idiomatic narratives as though he were catching his last breath, but so many lines intrigued me enough to keep trying. I'm still not even sure if I like the music, but I'm positive Finn's a lyrical genius. And that's more than I could say for some of my favorite bands.
Quoting lyrics often falls flat, unless you can quote a full verse or even an entire song. But Finn tosses off so many golden one-liners, he's almost daring you not to write them down: "She was a really cool kisser and she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian" ("Stuck Between Stations"). "How am I supposed to know that you’re high if you won't let me touch you?" ("Chips Ahoy!"). "We started recreational. It ended kinda medical. It came on hot and soft and then it tightened up its tentacles" ("Hot Soft Light"). "I feel Jesus in the clumsiness of young and awkward lovers. I feel Judas in the long odds of the rackets on the corners. I feel Jesus in the tenderness of honest nervous lovers. I feel Judas in the pistols and the pagers that come with all the powders" ("Citrus"). It's endless. Finn's lyrical acumen knows no bounds.