July 10, 2008

The Hold Steady / Stay Positive: “Let’s clutch and kiss and sing and shake, tonight let’s try to levitate”

Back then it was beautiful
The boys were sweet and musical
The laser lights looked mystical
. . . Messed up still felt magical

The more I listen to The Hold Steady, the more I think they might have what it takes to save rock & roll from crushing heartlessness, unoriginal pallor, and detached apathy. You might have noticed that people tend to fall diametrically on one side or the other of the Hold Steady spectrum. My friend Barber once described lead singer Craig Finn as “a crazy inebriated prophet, ear tuned to the roar, shouting out real-life scripture over the ocean of noise of society or a really loud bar band.” Yet I have other friends who violently object to the whole concept whenever I broach it. The Hold Steady must be something you either get –and get hard– or don’t. On this new album especially, I find it difficult to understand the latter.

On their fourth studio album Stay Positive (which drops in physical form July 15th) these five guys from Minneapolis stretch their songwriting out down new roads, and as always everything feels pretty epic and massive. Pressed up against gorgeously grand and subversively hopeful songs, Finn weaves complex stories of lust and confusion, of cutting and car crashes, of oracles and angels.

You can get an accurate impression of the feelings contained on Stay Positive from the cover and superb inner album art. Despite the muddy ground and the nauseatingly yellow sky with all the color bled out, there is always the potential for something exciting to happen tonight, for some urgency to swoop down and make you feel alive for forty-five minutes. The feeling of continuity that connects all of the Hold Steady’s albums is present here, through serial characters like Holly –who has been in the hospital, shaky but still trying to shake it, and now the girl who won’t say hi to him– and also through recurrent themes that perennially crop up to make a Hold Steady song what it is. The landscape is desolate, but the kids in the songs still yearn.

Stay Positive is also their album of bleeding and miracles — a fitting dichotomy for a band that plumbs both the gritty violent parts of our psyche as well as the redemption. On one of the album’s strongest tracks, Finn calls a girl named Sapphire (who possesses some hallucinogenic visionary abilities) and begs, “I know you said don’t call until I’m clean . . . but I’m not drunk, I’m cut. I’m gushing blood, and I need someone to come and pick me up.” I find something in the desperation of how Finn wrenches and pleads out that line that reverberates throughout the album. There’s talk of crucifixion, visions, and miracles, and later he sings “Don’t mention bloodshed, don’t tell them it hurts, don’t say we saw angels, they’ll take us straight to the church.” Make no mistake, this is an album of the mud and the blood and the beer, but along with that comes some old-fashioned revival-style hallelujah.

Musically, Stay Positive is as richly dense as anything they’ve done. I always find a sort of deliverance in the crashing piano cadences and expansive guitar solos of the Hold Steady, even as the lyrics detail another sad night, another desperate move. J Mascis guests stars (playing banjo on “Both Crosses”), as do Ben Nichols of Lucero and Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers (on backing vocals in a few songs). This is an album I am obviously enjoying immensely through the throes of this sweltering summer.

LISTEN: Sequestered In Memphis & Lord I’m Discouraged (stream)

NEW CONTEST: Thanks to the good folks at Vagrant, I have Hold Steady largess to scatter upon ye lucky masses like manna from the heavens.

Three lucky winners will win the Stay Positive CD (with the 3 bonus tracks on it, I think) and two of you will be spinning the black circle with the vinyl LP. The vinyl is 160 gram (black color), gatefold, and will feature one bonus track “Ask Her For The Adderall.”

Please leave me a comment indicating which format you are entering for, and since there are so many good ones to choose from, let’s talk about favorite Hold Steady lyrics.

Walk away with these lines from the new album — they leave you with that ache:

Girls didn’t seem so difficult
Boys didn’t seem so typical

It was all warm and white and wonderful

We were all invincible

We were wasps with new wings
Now we’re bugs in the jar
We were hot soft and pure

Now we’re scratched up in scars.

POSTSCRIPT OF OLD CONTEST BUSINESS: The Joe Strummer prize pack garnered some of the very best comments yet left on Fuel/Friends. From lighting Joe’s cigarette (a tale I verified with the cool commenter – oh, to have a lighter just when Joe Strummer fumbles for one outside a Vegas hotel) to talking to him backstage, wracked with nervous anticipation, you gotta go read all the great tales. Because I’m soft, I went with a randomly-selected winner: James from Brooklyn. Congrats! Let me know where to send it.

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  • Vinyl Rules!!!

    I have two favorites:

    you don’t have to go to the right kind of schools
    let your boyfriend come from the right kind of schools.
    you can wear his old sweatshirt.
    you can cover yourself like a bruise.

    she said “you’re pretty good with words but words won’t save your life”
    and they didn’t so he died.

    Big D — July 10, 2008 @ 6:42 pm

  • viva la vinyl!

    “I shouldn’t have gone down there but it was too late to switch. You gotta dance with who you came with.”

    I think this pretty much describes any bad situation that you have to stick out in life. It seems to happen more often than most of us like…this song always remind you that you’re not alone in the world thinking that something sucks!

    John — July 10, 2008 @ 7:16 pm

  • I’d be interested in the CD.

    The band has so many good lyrics and tons of them have been mentioned. Here’s some from my favorite song of theirs, “Cattle and the Creeping Things”…

    “She’s got a cross around her neck
    that she ripped off from a schoolgirl on a subway on a visit to the city

    She likes how it looks on her chest with three open buttons

    She likes the part where one brother kills the other

    She has to wonder whether if world ever will recover because Cain and Abel still seem to be causing trouble”

    Justin — July 10, 2008 @ 7:46 pm

  • Vinyl please

    From Citrus -

    Hey bar roommate tavern
    I find hope in all the souls you gather
    Hey citrus, hey liquor
    I love it when we come together

    <b> - Allan - </b> — July 10, 2008 @ 8:46 pm

  • Always like these verses from “The Swish” on “Almost Killed Me”

    Shoes and socks
    baby socks and shoes
    we spent the night last night in Newport News

    This chick she looked just like Elizabeth Shue
    We got bruised…

    She said my name’s Steve Perry
    baby people call me Circuit City
    I’m so well connected my UPC is dialed into the system

    I also love:

    “She says I kinda dig those awkward silences
    Because I grew up in denial and went to school in Massachusetts
    And he said hi,
    I like to party on the problem blocks
    And I can’t stand it when the banging stops”

    from “Banging Camp” on “Separation Sunday”

    But take your pick…their lyrics are always the best. Enjoy your blog as always. Would love the CD, but plan on buying it regardless. Thanks!

    Eric — July 10, 2008 @ 9:09 pm

  • I’d love a CD

    and I can make you like me!

    Trampus — July 11, 2008 @ 8:23 am

  • Hey! Nice review! Am entering for the vinyl :)

    My favourite lyric from THS ever is from Stay Positive. The end of Lord I’m Discouraged:

    “I know it’s unlikely she’ll ever be mine,
    So I mostly just pray she don’t die”

    It’s my fav because it stands alone as a great line, but the real reason I love it as much as I do is because of the impact it has at this point in the back catalogue.

    (I don’t know if I’ll express this very well but…) What I mean is, after everything that we know has happened to Holly, everything she has done, everything that has been done to her, and everything that the narrator has been through with her, it strikes me as a very powerful line – it’s not a happy ending (and I’m sure it’s not the end anyway), but it is an incredibley honest and raw expression of how he feels for her. It shows how much it hurts him to see her hurt, but also that he feels that pain in a totally selfless and heart wrenching way.

    Basically I think it’s just a stunning reflection of the fact that you can’t choose who you care that deeply about. I think I’m rambling quite badly but I hope I sort of made sense!

    Oh yeah and it doesn’t hurt that it’s preceded by an epic guitar solo!!

    Caz in Brighton — July 11, 2008 @ 11:03 am

  • Sweet review. Could I please be entered for the vinyl.

    “She got screwed up by religion.
    She got screwed by soccer players.
    She got high for the first time in the camps down by the banks of the mississippi river.
    Lord to be seventeen forever.
    She got confused about the truth.
    She came to in a confession.
    She got high for the last time in the camps down by the banks of the river.
    Lord to be 33 forever.
    She got screwed up by her vision.
    It was scary when she saw him.
    She didn’t tell a single person about the camps on the banks of the mississippi river.
    Lord to be seventeen forever.
    She got strung out the scene.
    She got scared when it got druggy.
    The way the whispers bit like fangs in the last hour of the parties.
    Lord to be 33 forever.”

    I hang out at those camps so when I first heard this I was like whoa.

    Mick — July 11, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

  • Wow– so many options.

    “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.”

    “and then last night
    she said words alone never could save us.
    and then last night
    she cried when she told us about jesus.”
    –First Night

    The story behind (and the face melting guitar solo within) Lord I’m Discouraged is also riveting.

    On the first one doesn’t it just remind you of those awkward first kisses? The hope and the potential — and yes– the salvation that you can dredge up in youthful love. Attraction without preconditions and arguments. The first fumbling attempts at connecting, at intimacy with another person. Shit– I’ve got goosebumps thinking about my first time.

    Right– and I’d like the cd.


    sean broom — July 11, 2008 @ 1:46 pm

  • CD por favor –

    Although there are many many great ones, my favorite lyrics are probably the “kissing” lines scattered around B&GIA:

    “These twin city kisses sound like clicks and hisses”

    “same kooks can’t come but they sure do kiss, making love to the girls with the wrapped up wrists”

    “don’t even speak to all those sequencer and beat boys – when they kiss they spit white noise”

    “i’m pretty sure we kissed”

    “they started kissin when the nurses took off their IV’s – it was kinda sexy but it was kinda creepy”

    And maybe the best of the bunch:

    “i’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere”

    If Stay Positive is about bleeding and miracles, then Boys & Girls was about reckless youth – and what’s better about being young than the excitement of first kisses?

    James — July 11, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

  • “arms and hearts and alcohol and faith, we pull each other in and then we push it all away”

    that’s my favorite lyric.

    and you’re right. Hold Steady are one of those bands that, if you get them, you get them hard. and i so so so do.

    cd, please :)

    Sara — July 11, 2008 @ 7:54 pm

  • …”lost in faith and love and hope and fear–I’ve had kisses that make Judas seems sincere…”
    Are you listening, sweetheart?
    Oh, man, who hasn’t?

    Great write up, Heather.
    I would prefer a CD copy…

    Andy — July 11, 2008 @ 10:00 pm

  • I would like a copy of the cd if you decide to throw one my way! Love your blog!

    I don’t know much about The Hold Steady outside of “Stuck Between Stations”, which I think is a helluva a rockin’ tune. I haven’t gotten around to listening to their other stuff.

    My favorite lyrics would be
    “He likes the warm feeling but he’s tired of all the dehydration.”
    “We drink, we dry up, we crumble into dust.”

    Ryan — July 11, 2008 @ 10:46 pm

  • I don’t want a prize I’m looking forward to buying the cd on the 15th and sitting in the parking lot of the store listening to it, booklet in my fingers. However, thank you for the passion that you would into this. I get that they are a “love them” or “I don’t get it” band, that I do “get it” has brought so much happiness and adrenaline to me in the last few years. To paraphrase Jon Landau they are the history of rock and roll, Long live The Hold Steady.

    bobgoatcheese — July 12, 2008 @ 7:51 am

  • “We’re all The Hold Steady!!” (from the live performances of Killer Parties) This is why we love them.

    My favorite band by a mile and a half

    vinyl please


    Anonymous — July 12, 2008 @ 5:14 pm

  • caught the Hold Steady at Lolla last summer… my husband and I stood in the huge crowd and watched them while we held hands and smiled at each other- thrilled with this new discovery. ahhh… the poetic madness.. it was pure bliss. can’t imagine they’ll ever come down to miami… we’re sort of off live music radar it seems.
    anyway, if i am chosen, i guess i’ll take vinyl…although either would be great :)
    “She said always remember never to trust me. she said that the first night she met me. she said there’s gonna be a time when i’m gonna have to go with whoever’s gonna get me the highest.”
    thanks heather!

    serena — July 12, 2008 @ 7:43 pm

  • “…because it burns being broke and it hurts to be heartbroken but always being both must be a drag.”
    Your Little Hoodrat Friend was the first Hold Steady song I ever heard, and I was hooked. Thanks kexp.org, cuz I’m pretty sure Clear Channel don’t play Hold Steady.

    A CD would be cool, if I’m so lucky.

    Nigel — July 13, 2008 @ 1:32 am

  • After listening to the Hold Steady for years and getting to a point where it seems like I know the characters about whom Finn is singing, I really like this lyric:

    The priest just kinda laughed.
    The deacon caught a draft.
    She crashed into the Easter Mass with her hair done up in broken glass.
    She was limping left on broken heels.
    When she said Father can I tell your congregation how a resurrection really feels?

    If aI am so lucky, I would like the Vinyl. Thanks

    Miles (Denver)

    Miles — July 13, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

  • She’s probably gonna tell you
    You ain’t doing anything right
    And then you’ll roll your eyes
    And then you’ll probably fight

    Simple, but describes the origins of an argument so well.

    Jamoo — July 13, 2008 @ 6:19 pm

  • Oh, and vinyl, should I be so lucky.

    Jamoo — July 13, 2008 @ 6:20 pm

  • Damn right he’ll rise again!

    Winning that CD would be legendary.

    I remember seeing Craig Finn lecture at Boston College. He seemed pleased when I told him that I’m a priest and have used some Hold Steady lyrics in sermons. Those guys preach the Gospel.

    Fr Michael — July 13, 2008 @ 7:02 pm

  • VINYL!!!! please…

    holly wore a string around her finger. she said it helps her to remember all the nites that we got over. besides, it ties her outfit all together. holly wore a string around her finger.

    lonestarninja — July 13, 2008 @ 10:49 pm

  • It’s not quite the great beauty lyrically that some of the Hold Steady lyrics are, but I’ve always liked this part from “Arms and Hearts:”

    Arms and hearts and alcohol and death
    She was awkward and thoughtful and ascending into heaven dripping wet.

    Arms and hearts and alcohol and faith
    We pull each other in and then we push it all away

    I feel like I can relate.

    If I win, I’d like the CD format. Thanks for the contest! :)

    Heather — July 14, 2008 @ 8:14 am

  • I’ve always loved the description of the guy from Chillout Tent. You just know immediately exactly who he’s talking about.

    he was rough around the edges:
    he’d been to school, but never finished,
    he’d been to jail, but never prison.

    CD please!

    bradro — July 14, 2008 @ 9:23 pm

  • Vinyl, if it please you.

    Man, this is a tough one. Before the release of “Stay Positive,” and being a writer of sorts myself, I was always partial to the simplistic, “She said, ‘You’re pretty good with words, but words won’t save your life.’

    But in the spirit of this new release, I’ll go with something off the last track.

    “We are the theatre
    They are the people
    Dressed up to be seated
    Looking upwards and dreaming

    We’re the projectors
    We’re hosting the screening
    We’re dust in the spotlights
    We’re just kinda floating”

    As Finn later says, “Man, we make our own movies.” Sometimes I imagine all of us walking around on this Earth as individual cameras, taking in what the world has to offer from our own unique perspective. So this song and these lyrics really make me smile.

    Brett — July 15, 2008 @ 12:45 pm

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Bio Pic Name: Heather Browne
Location: Colorado, originally by way of California
Giving context to the torrent since 2005.

"I love the relationship that anyone has with music: because there's something in us that is beyond the reach of words, something that eludes and defies our best attempts to spit it out. It's the best part of us, probably, the richest and strangest part..."
—Nick Hornby, Songbook
"Music has always been a matter of energy to me, a question of Fuel. Sentimental people call it Inspiration, but what they really mean is Fuel."
—Hunter S. Thompson

Mp3s are for sampling purposes, kinda like when they give you the cheese cube at Costco, knowing that you'll often go home with having bought the whole 7 lb. spiced Brie log. They are left up for a limited time. If you LIKE the music, go and support these artists, buy their schwag, go to their concerts, purchase their CDs/records and tell all your friends. Rock on.

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