The Hold Steady – ‘Boys and Girls in America’: Round 27 – Rob’s choice

Feeling uninspired until a few days before the meeting, I glanced at the list of possible choices i’ve been keeping and The Hold Steady felt like they were edging themselves to the head of the pack.

We’ve learned over the last year or so that some types of records work better than others as DRC choices. Those with unusual structures or styles, those with a challenging sensibility tend to shut the attendees up and encourage close listening and engaged discussion. Those that sound like things we’ve heard before and reveal their wonders with time tend to do less well.

I guess the Hold Steady fall into this latter category. On the surface they’re a hard barroom rock band kicking out fists in the air anthems tuned for fraternity parties. The treasures are buried just beneath the surface.

First up you notice just how sticky Craig Finn’s lyrics are. He has a way of turning a phrase that you want to repeat and hear again and again, and i’m not sure quite how. From the moment I heard “She put five hundred dollars/on the fifth horse/in the sixth race/I think its name was Chips Ahoy” I was hooked.

After a few more listens you pick up on the narrative density of the songs. A cast of characters drift through the Hold Steady universe and by the time this, their third album, rolls around, you’re checking in on Holly, Gideon and Charlemagne and crossing your fingers that they’re straightening themselves out.

Then, when you’ve burrowed right through there’s the self-referential joy of a band who chronicle the lives of people who party too much, who adopt and adapt the blue collar of american AM rock and, ultimately, make thrilling music which could, in truth, be banging out in the background of their own stories.

So, perhaps not a great choice for DRC, but a great album by a great band nonetheless.

Nick listened: I own this, and their previous album, Separation Sunday, too. The Hold Steady are a band that I like the idea of a great deal, but I find it hard to listen to their actual records; their recorded sound is pretty prototypically mid-00s, very thick and dense and compressed in the mix and master, which really bugs me and, I think, really plays against their strengths – I’d like them to sound ragged and edgy and dynamic and like a proper live bar band. I’d like them to sound like Cure For Pain by Morphine, actually. They’re a band I want to like, but I never want to listen to their actual records, so I’ve never got to know the characters, lyrics, and situations that people their (seemingly pretty great) songs.

Tom Listened: As Rob has suggested, The Hold Steady or, to be more precise, Girls and Boys in America is perhaps not such a good choice for Record Club as it is so hard to assimilate on a first listen. I suspect that this is a classic album/band – plenty of people whose opinions I share and trust reckon so – but if it were that simple, I would have thought differently about The Wrens, TV on the Radio, Bon Iver and Jimi Hendrix! So, for now, the jury’s out.

I was surprised at how much GaBiA reminded me of Thin Lizzy. Craig Finn’s voice is a dead-ringer for Phil Lynott’s and the sound of the record isn’t a million miles away either. At other times, especially on the slower, quieter songs, the Springsteen comparisons could definitely be heard. If I were to see GaBiA on vinyl at my local record store, I would probably pick it up and look on it as a bit of a challenge (what with the horrible key change and all) and, no doubt, grow to like it but it is probably not something I would actively seek out.

Graham listened: I liked this a lot even though it didn’t get a fair hearing from me. I found that as soon as the Thin Lizzy and Brooocie references had been discussed I couldn’t get them out of my mind and just listen to the album on its merits. I also found the production style really strange in the way Nick commented. That said, I still really liked this and will need to listen again.

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