Thursday, June 5, 2008

Live Blog Listening Party: Stay Positive by The Hold Steady

While we at Neon Hustle certainly esteem each other’s opinions, we’re by no means monolithic in our likes and dislikes. Even if we tend to agree or disagree on the specific quality of something, oftentimes the reasons for those assessments are at complete odds. So when a band we all admire (for predictably different reasons) releases a new album, we're of course going to try and make sense of it all.

The Hold Steady will issue their fourth LP, Stay Positive, in July on Vagrant Records. One of the most anticipated new releases of 2008 (at least in our camp), we’ve consequently wasted no time in assembling. What follows are our opinions of the album—biased in orientation, baseless in gestation, and bellicose of argument—as produced in real time listening to Stay Positive. Our missives have been edited only for length, coherency, and to mask the scent of three budding alcoholics.

Into the breach...


Brendan: Any things to say about The Hold Steady or Stay Positive before we begin? Thoughts, expectations, etc?

Darryl: As a general thought, I have enough faith in Craig Finn as an artist that I was willing to put in the effort to work through some tracks that irked me at first (like “One for the Cutters”) and at this point I'm a pretty big fan of the album. I'm not yet sure where I put it overall in their work.

Steven: It’s not as good Boys and Girls in America, certainly, but that album was pretty freaking spectacular. It's strange, the Hold Steady sort of assumed the mantle of being the voice of America's youth with Boys and Girls, and this album seems a very concentrated reaction against that.

Brendan: In terms of literally using their age to reconnect with adolescent experience, this seems a more overtly pop-punk record. But my initial reaction is that I immediately connected with a higher percentage of songs on Stay Positive than any other Hold Steady album.

Steven: Okay, well let's go.

TRACK 1: “Constructive Summer”

(Tattoo by Adam Suerte, Brooklyn Tattoo. Thanks to Mr. Lee.)

Darryl: The unreconstructed pop-punk fan in me adores this track. So does the rest of me, but that part especially.

Steven: Yeah, I'm a total sucker for unadulterated optimism, which this song has in spades.

Brendan: "Constructive Summer" marks the first Hold Steady track with backing vocals by Lucero's Ben Nichols, who guests on 3 tracks.

Darryl: Wait, he's somewhere other than here and “Magazines”?

Steven: I didn’t even know he was on this track! The only time Nichols ever distinguishes himself at any point in this record is in "Magazines".

Brendan: Here's my problem: people seem to like the shout-along choruses that started in earnest with "Chips Ahoy!", but I think the band is underselling itself by not letting any other member of the band/guest compliment Finn with a true backing vocal. Nichols sings in his lower register the whole time and he's absolutely buried in the mix.

Darryl: I think the other vocalist is a false need. Yes, there are amazing bands with great second vocalists (Saint Mick Jones?) but I by no means think they need to define the band. Even sing-along songs can work with layered vocals by a single singer.

Moreover, I think the inclusion of a second vocalist with presence risks diluting the impact of a band whose identity is in so many ways defined by the consistency of Finn's gravel. Insomuch as second vocalists come in, they fill specific needs (“Chillout Tent,” “Constructive Summer”). I dig.

Brendan: So why even have the guest vocal then? What specific need is filled here? I mean, Nichols has a unique enough voice to be used well, but he really seems noticeably buried in this mix. Like, it stands out that the response vocal is so low.

Darryl: Could the story in “Chillout Tent” be told as well by Finn? Maybe, but the fresh voice adds so much to it. On this track, I think it's a matter of creating a dynamic that follows the sort of band/concert/summer/experience evoked by the song. I can almost envision Ben leaning into a mic at a live show to sing this, and I think that's what it's supposed to sound like.

Brendan: I do have another point quickly if we're off that one. What's the threshold on Minneapolis shoutouts? The "double whiskey coke no ice" lyric in "Constructive Summer" is, in a song otherwise not actively acknowledged to be set in Minnesota, is a reference to Dillinger Four.

Darryl: I appreciated it. And I appreciated Dillinger Four. It's subtle, which is nice.

Brendan: The band is from fucking Brooklyn . Pick a loyalty already. At some point, you fail to be from your hometown.

Darryl: Says the man who reps Texas but still has the "I Love the OC" shirt.

Brendan: But why is Brooklyn not a part of their mythology?

Steven: Inertia?

Brendan: Of course, Newton! What a fool I've been!

Steven: Seriously, if you're going to be a hyper self-referential band, you have to call back to your old albums. And for whatever reason, Finn sang first about Minnesota. That was what, 10 years ago now?

Brendan: More than that if you count Lifter Puller, which I do.

Darryl: Whether conscious or not, there's always a degree of resistance to change. Which in some ways is representative of some of their characters, and in other ways simply a product of growing up and not being quite willing to let go.

Do we want to move on to “Sequestered in Memphis”?

Brendan: After this: “Constructive Summer” is so far is the #2 best opening track on any album this year. Because it rocks face. That is all.

TRACK 2: “Sequestered in Memphis”

Darryl: I had my doubts about this track when it premiered, but I've since come around to everything about it. The story, the characters, the sound, the instrumentation.

Brendan: This is Nichols’ second track.

Steven: I'd have never known.

Darryl: When you talk about them addressing a new range of experiences, is this one of the tracks you're talking about?

Steven: Yeah, this is certainly part of that. It’s the first time any of Finn's protagonists deals with the fallout from their actions.

Darryl: Exactly!

Brendan: I don’t know about that. He's flippant about the "consequences".

Steven: Sure, but even if the protagonist is dismissive of those consequences, he's still dealing with them if only because he’s being questioned by the police. The acceptance of those consequences comes later in the album, which we’ll get to. It’s a soft-build up, but an important change in the usual HS narrative.

Darryl: I think it's as much about the context as anything else. "Reality" or "the law" or whatever is an abstract or perhaps nonexistent entity in other tracks.

Brendan: "Do you think I'm that stupid? / Well look, what the hell, I'll tell my story again …" This guy doesn't give a shit; you’ve got nothing on him.

Darryl: It bears mention that even if the same kind of character is still dodging the same kind of issues, the story is being told from a different perspective than usual, which I think is a notable difference. (This might be Gideon in twenty years.)

Steven: It's THE noticeable difference, in my mind. I completely agree that the character's paradigm hasn't shifted at all. But, again, the previous consequences were usually detoxing in some way or another. This dude's got a shitstorm of problems coming his way beyond “my head hurts”.

Brendan: In any event, as the only one of us who has lived in both Texas and the Memphis metropolitan area, I am tempted to make this my banner HS song. I probably would too, if I didn't place a horrible stigma on first-singles from albums.

Steven: You could do worse. This is a kick-ass tune. For instance, you could choose....

Brendan: Uh oh

TRACK 3: “One for the Cutters”

Steven: … this one. We’re entering the two-song doldrums of the album.

Darryl: It's such a drastic shift, and it references back to something altogether different both in style and era from the first tracks.

Brendan: I’ll bite. I love this track. Go off.

Darryl: First listen: Too long, weird instrumentation, your songs are NOT sing-along songs!

Steven: The harpsichord is cloying. It's too long. And Finn’s first foray into economic/social justice just feels false to me.

Brendan: Tell me why "When one townie falls in the forest does anyone notice" aren’t the best lyrics on the record.

Steven: It’s didactic.

Brendan: Ah, but why isn't this growth? I mean, he's spent how many years now playing on the middle-to-lower class sandbox? Previously, the only upper-class characters were there to score, and we get that.

Darryl: A friend of mine was a big fan of Separation Sunday, but found Boys and Girls too "sing along song" for her tastes. Of course, she reads a lot of Joyce and lived in Greece for a while. She doesn't love HS for the Springsteen drenched opening of “Stuck Between Stations,” or the chorus of "You Can Make Him Like You." She liked the fact that Finn could tell a story with words, punctuated by music, like nobody else these days. That's what SS did, and that's what this song does. Awkwardly, it puts its musical adventurism totally in service of the story.

With this song, if I listen to the music, I want to tear out my headphones. If I hear the words, I'm pretty much hooked.

Brendan: I love the harpsichord. Why is the instrumentation not rewarded?

Darryl: Because it sounds like a troubadour traveling through Sherwood Methampheta-Forest. This is not a great song. But it's not "The Greatest Man that Ever Lived" either.

Steven: So why are you so taken with it, Brendan?

Brendan: This song, to me, is when Stay Positive hooks me. It’s lyrically engaging, and if you can't take harpsichord, I understand. But if you like the sound, this is an exceptionally well paced track, and Franz gets double credit for the rising piano scale.

Steven: Yeah, the piano is fantastic.

Brendan: If you like the piano, recognize that it is a direct foil to the harpsichord. You like it because the melodic work is already being done in another register!

Darryl: I like this song for the characters it creates and where it puts them. I like the sound insomuch as it carries me into a mildly unsettled feeling that I think is something key to the story. The Stranglers were a post-punk band, but they never had the dancey-ness of New Order or the heart on the sleeve emotion of the Cure, but what made them interesting is how they created sweeping, dark, and occasionally operatic songs that were drenched in reverb, experimented with synthesizers and other instrumentation, and were dark in the most pathetically 15 year old deadjournal way, but were still interesting because they held you with their melodies and their ideas.

What ultimately gets me, though, is that I never liked the Stranglers that much. And I don't like this song this much, even if it's got some incredibly redeeming qualities.

That's pretty much all I wanted to get out there. And also that I don't really think I'd call it well paced.

TRACK 4: “Navy Sheets”

Steven: Continuing with the theme of "totally wasted backup vocalists," that's Patterson Hood you can barely hear on this track.

Darryl: Continuing my theme of not knowing that a backup vocalist was brought on...

Brendan: This record has a weak as hell mix.

Steven: I only know it’s Hood because of the band’s website. How did you know about Nichols?

Brendan: His voice is more distinct, plus there was the promo material.

Darryl: Also, Brendan stalks Lucero.

Brendan: Not since That Much Further West, thanks.

Steven: That was the one album Darryl recommended to me! No wonder I dismissed them.

Darryl: Damn, my bad. I can't remember when I'd have put that as my Lucero pick. I like that album, but I'm not sure I'd have ever put it over Tennessee as an intro.

And is Is it safe to say that, given the digression, that no one has overwhelming opinions on this track?

Steven: Yup.

Brendan: We just spent the whole of "Navy Sheets" talking about another band!

Darryl: I don't know what this song reminds me of.

Brendan: It reminds me of the re-done CGI in the Star Wars re-releases of the late 90s.

Hey guys, if I ever meet George Lucas, remind me to punch him in the junk

Steven: It reminds me that I want to skip this track whenever it comes on.

TRACK 5: “Lord, I’m Discouraged”

Steven: Craig Finn said this album was about growing up, and this is most clear-cut example of that. It’s definitely the album’s highlight.

Darryl: I figured that would be your take. Given your DBT appreciation and affinity for this sort of song, this was written for you.

Steven: Yeah, I’m predictable.

Darryl: And probably right.

Steven: I can't think of a single fault with it. Seriously, a copy of this song should be buried in a time capsule or sent into space or something, just as evidence of the worthiness of human endeavor in the 21st century.

Brendan: Even though Kubler goes to the finger tapping in the 4th minute? Seriously, is the guitar solo worth a fucking thing anymore?

Steven: I'd say absolutely, but then I'm a DBT fan

Darryl: I'm not sure the guitar solo can really exist as an independent entity anymore. Especially with a guitar solo like that, you can't help but be reminded of every other shredder to do the same, or some similar thing, before it. Hair metal ruined any stretch of notes that fast and that long for future generations.

Steven: So does that mean I'm a dinosaur? Because I’m a total sucker for guitar solos.

Darryl: No, it just means you're not as jaded. This song really is fantastic. I think I’m willing to indulge the guitar solo in the sense that it seems to fit in a bizarre, depressed way.

Brendan: Someone tell me what this story is about.

Steven: It's a guy with an ambiguous relationship with a girl who's clearly on the downward spiral, praying for her salvation. So it's the first ever HS protagonist outside the prism of the usual lowlifes.

I think that guitar solo is there just to make sure that we know the guy hasn't given up all hope. In the first couple of verses he’s just listing off all the things gone wrong, but after that solo, the tenor of his confession changes to one where he puts the resolution in the hands of God, who wouldn’t handle the situation any worse than he has. There’s something powerful in that.

Brendan: That last line might also be the admission that he's completely moved on. He hoped she's alright because she's not in his life to watch over anymore.

Steven: Oooh, I like that, even if I’m not sure I totally agree.

TRACK 6: “Yeah Sapphire”

Steven: This is a fucking great song, even if it’s pretty redolent of “Constructive Summer,” musically speaking.

Brendan: Only slower and not as propulsively interesting. Nothing here speaks to my 16 year old self, except the Sacto shoutout, where I was born and hope never to return to.

Steven: I thought we had decided this album was beyond the 16 year olds? Anyway, this is a pretty cookie-cutter HS song, but there’s a ripping line I’ve totally latched on to: “Dreams they cost money, but money costs some dreams.” I also think its tempo works great after “Lord, I’m Discouraged”.

Brendan: I never agreed that this wasn’t for “The Kids.”

Darryl: Structurally, this could be a sing-along. It has all the makings of the Boys and Girls tracks that put us in that place, but it's more restrained. I'm not sure if that's intentional or whether they swung for the fence and missed.

Brendan: Is Boys and Girls really a sing-along record? I sing along to “Chips Ahoy!” and “You Can Make Him Like You”, but is that the REAL HS?

Darryl: I don’t know if there’s a “real” HS. I think there's a continuum of evolution, I don't think they're static.

Steven: Is “sing-along” a pejorative term for you guys?

Brendan: No, I like sing-alongs, but not without a defined secondary vocal presence (see “Magazines”). But I consider a straight ahead rock song that I can sing along with to be an unevolved version of what I used to like, back before I realized that I couldn’t mute every other chord effectively enough to play ska.

TRACK 7: “Both Crosses”

: Worst song on the album?

Steven: This is a very dense track, lyrically speaking, that is frankly beyond me without access to the lyrics. With that caveat, it’s pretty bad, but what makes it so? The banjo doesn’t help things, I know that.

Darryl: The indulgent instrumentation and dense wall of sound.

Brendan: Are Finn's lyrical pretensions towards Catholicism an affectation at this point? Do they serve a purpose beyond saying, “I went to Boston College!”?

Darryl: I think Catholicism is a crucial element of some of his characters.

Brendan: Ah, but this is not a character-driven record.

Darryl: Not in the broader sense, but I think it's still stories about people, and still very directly so.

Brendan: But without the context of the other characters.

Darryl: You mean across the whole album/catalog?

Brendan: Yeah. There is no connect on this album’s characters. It’s not a story record.

Darryl: I think that's true - and in the sense that the characters could sometimes be drawn without Catholicism and be no less full, I think it can sometimes be a crutch for him.

TRACK 8: “Stay Positive”

: The pacing on this album is really great.

Steven: Yeah, we've been listening to this thing for about two hours, and that's the one thing that's struck me most about it. There's really only one off note ("One for the Cutters").

Brendan: So, is this one a reach-out to the kids? You’ve got shoutouts to Youth of Today and 7 Seconds.

Darryl: Only if you reach out to the kids these days with references to bands that started in the 80s.

Brendan: Ah, but the throwback shit is popular with kids (like me).

Darryl: True, but the song rags on the actual youths of today (not the band) pretty heavily. “The kids are too skinny, the kids are gonna have kids of their own, etc...” It seems like it’s looking at the scene by looking back.

Also, this is Stay Positive’s reference-every-other-HS-track-ever song.

Steven: "Stay positive" the song is to Stay Positive the album as that long guitar solo was to "Lord I'm discouraged": bit of levity before the resignation and fatalism set in (in the album’s case, the last three tracks).

TRACK 9: “Magazines”

Steven: Wherein we finally meet Ben Nichols.

Brendan: Somebody please tell me why "Magazines" shouldn’t be a hit?

Steven: I'm actually surprised that this wasn't the first single.

Brendan: This is the most adult of any relationship Finn seems to write about. Not to say middle aged, but characters with real jobs and the same leanings they had when they were 17. You know, like anybody else.

Darryl: I think that's pretty accurate; it's definitely a lot closer than anything on Separation Sunday, but I'm still put off by some of the lyrics. “Hits her like a tambourine,” "I know you're pretty pissed, I hope you'll still let me kiss you." It's this sort of lyricism more than any other factor that reminds me of the mall-emo genre. There's a casual misogyny and a dynamic of objectification that's eerily reminiscent of Fall Out Boy, Brand New and company. Which isn't to say it's a bad representation of that character, but it weirds me out.

Brendan: I'm just saying, these are as fully formed as any characters on the record. Why can't their experience be taken as a matured relationship?

Darryl: Because I think after the first verse, the character of the woman isn't really defined by much apart from the way in which she's pursued by the men.

Brendan: Is “Magazines” the best song on the album?

Darryl: I don't think it's the best song on the album, but I do think it's probably the best single on the album.

Brendan: Do either of you have significant issues with the hypothetical of if the album ended now? Would you miss the latter songs?

Darryl: No. It was a great album up to this point, and resolves pretty well here.

Brendan: And how can you not love that “Magazines” ends with the exact note as “Holland 1945”?

TRACK 10: “Joke About Jamaica”

Steven: So does your previous observation make these next two tracks superfluous? Because I really like the narrative conceit of this one. I think it's pretty important to the album, both as a warning against superficial self-worth, and a pretty sardonic take on ossifying in a youth-dominated culture.

Brendan: Explain.

Steven: It's about a groupie who thinks she's hot shit till she gets older, at which point the bands won’t have anything to with her. So she gets bitter: “The boys in the band, no they’ll never be stars.” It doesn’t really add anything to the album thematically, but it reinforces the themes. And it's very listenable.

Darryl: But being written from the perspective of a woman, I think it is a different take.

Steven: Yeah, but I think there's also a bit of transference there. The fears of age squeezing you out of a youth-dominated scene are probably front and center for Finn and Co.

Brendan: Why the marked lack of Tad's leads? This is the first track to feature them since "Lord, I’m Discouraged". I remember when I first started listening to HS, Kubler’s guitar was all over 'em. But I think there are 2 guitar solo tracks on this entire album.

Darryl: I think the role of the guitar changes pretty significantly in the style of the last few songs. With Boys and Girls there was a pretty significant shift to other instruments, though.

Brendan: I half want to enter a philosophical deathmatch with Steven over guitar solos. But okay, let’s move on.

TRACK 11: “Slapped Actress”

Darryl: What's the best album closer HS have done?

Brendan: “How a Resurrection Really Feels”

Darryl: Yeah, that's always been my pick, too. Both for what it does for the album and for the song itself just kicking ass.

Steven: “Killer Parties”

Darryl: That was my second choice. I think “Slapped Actress” is third, with “Southtown Girls” coming in last.

Steven: Considering “Southtown Girls” is a pretty strong track, that's still some high praise. They certainly know how to close out albums, in other words.

Brendan: That, or they have a high percentage of good songs equally worthy of praise.

Darryl: I dunno, I don't think “Killer Parties” would have worked nearly as well had it been placed anywhere else on the record. “Southtown Girls” is the exception in that I think it may have been better somewhere else.

Brendan: Let’s wrap this up, then. Best songs: "Magazines,” "Lord, I’m Discouraged," "One for the Cutters"

Darryl: “Lord I'm Discouraged,” “Slapped Actress” and “Constructive Summer”

Steven: “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” “Constructive Summer” and “Sequestered in Memphis”. So there’s a general consensus about the best songs, with the obvious exception being “One for the Cutters”.

Brendan: So is this album a progression? A regression? A holding pattern?

Darryl: I think it's a progression. If you look at Separation Sunday and Almost Killed Me as records heavily focused on stories and words, and at Boys and Girls as their first step towards a more musically adventurous band, I think it's hard to see this as anything but a further progression down that line. There’s a question as to whether it's been a success—there weren't the missteps of “One for the Cutters” on Boys and Girls—but I don't think it's regressing or holding. I think they're pushing themselves for sure.

End Transmission


Avi said...

Guys, this was a great post. I've been listening to the album for the last few days now (thanks darryl) and have had a lot of the same thoughts. Keep up the good work.

Brendan K. said...

By "agreed" do you mean "Brendan is totally right about 'One for the Cutters?'"

Avi said...

Was that intended for me? I find the harpsichord annoying and the tempo a little too slow, but I like the chorus. Its a bit darker than usual which goes over well. And I kinda like the "he didn't seem much different/except for the blood on his jacket. He didn't seem much different/except for his haircut." And the drums, I like the drums. But I don't think it is one of the best songs on the album.

Steven said...

I think Jay Sherman said it best:

"It stinks!"

Mr. Lee said...

The image you use in the this post of the Brooklyn Bridge tattoo is my back, which was used without my permission or with credit to the artist, Adam Suerte of Brooklyn Tattoo.

Brendan K said...

Mr. Lee-

We found the pic via Google image search. If you'll allow us its use, we've credited Mr. Suerte and yourself. We'd be happy to take it down if you'd prefer. Thanks for your understanding.

Anonymous said...

You can absolutely use it, thanks for the credit.

Mr. Lee said...

You can absolutely use it, thanks for the credit.

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