The Hold Steady – Stay Positive

Stay Positive (2008)


1. Constructive Summer 2. Sequestered In Memphis 3. One For The Cutters 4. Navy Sheets 5. Lord, I’m Discouraged 6. Yeah Sapphire 7. Both Crosses 8. Stay Positive 9. Magazines 10. Joke About Jamaica 11. Slapped Actress


Even more bombastic, more diverse, and in so being drifting further away from the ascetic garage of the Almost Killed Me days, but it’s not like the Hold Steady have suddenly gone soft. In fact, the opener “Constructive Summer” is probably the most aggressive, heart rate-pumping, exuberant song they’ve ever done, like Husker Du’s “Celebrated Summer” without the acoustic parts – just frenzied, pounding rock all the way through. It’s a tough act to follow, but so, of course, was “Stuck Between Stations,” and Boys And Girls turned out pretty well… and like Boys And Girls, Stay Positive has a barnstorming single that follows up its opening assault in the form of “Sequestered In Memphis.” It doesn’t have the catchy chorus hooks of “Chips Ahoy,” but it does have a well-utilized horn section, a mass-sing along refrain led by Lucero singer Ben Nichols, and guest guitar by the great Doug Gillard of Guided By Voices, so I’m a pretty happy camper.

Overall, your enjoyment of Stay Positive in comparison to previous Hold Steady albums will hinge on how well you tolerate the fact that, musically, THS have gone from sounding like a bar band trying to imitate their arena rock heroes to being able afford the kind of production that makes them actually sound like an arena rock band. If bombastic guitar riffs bother you, then the Hold Steady probably aren’t for you anyway and you’d be better off sticking to your Paul Simon albums. But I can see some musical elements here sticking in a more punk-oriented fan’s craw. For instance, I find the gross “Band On The Run” synth in “Navy Sheets” or the Frampton Comes Alive “talking” guitar solo in “Joke About Jamaica” rather tacky. On the other hand, I like the harpsichord on “One For The Cutters” (gives the song some character where otherwise it might have come across as more sluggish and dull than it does) and especially the soaring guitar solo on the stunning near-power ballad “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” which sounds ripped straight off of a Guns ‘N Roses record. Chuckle at the Guitar Hero-style audacity if you must, but come on, that’s some mighty fine twiddlin’.

But for all their new tricks, the band is still at its best when they just plug in and rock out (aside from the intriguingly morose acoustic diversion “Both Crosses,” which sounds like nothing they’d done before and is a crucial track here). On the title track, set to thundering power chords and the album’s most urgent, memorable chorus (complete with “Chips Ahoy”-style wordless backing vocals), Craig fashions an effective theme song for his particular brand of narrative/philosophy (Killer Partyism?) out of a multitude of self-references. Coming from almost any other songwriter, a hook line like “We gotta stay positive,” delivered without any irony whatsoever, as the ultimate summation of his or her message would probably be laughable. But in Craig’s manically flailing hands, goddamn if it isn’t uplifting and shit. Ditto for the brilliant closer “Slapped Actress” and its cumulative line, “Man, we make our own movies.” You know this band is good at what they do when they make even me want to forget my snarky ways for forty or so minutes and just revel in the pure joy of their music.

Notable lyrics include:

“Me and my friends are like/The drums on ‘Lust For Life’”

“Raise a toast to Saint Joe Strummer/I think he might have been our only decent teacher”

“I think she drove a new Mustang/I guess it might be a rental/I remember she had satellite radio/I guess she seemed a bit nervous, do you think I’m that stupid?”

“I went there on ‘business’” (this line is best appreciated live while Craig does exaggerated air quotes while singing it)

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

“She’s known a couple of boys that died/And two of them were crucified/And the last one had enlightened eyes/The first guy he was Jesus Christ”

“These sing-along songs will be our scriptures”

“Magazines and daddy issues/I know you’re pretty pissed, I hope you still let me kiss you”

“They used to think it was so cute when she said ‘Dy’er Mak’er’/All the kids knew it was a joke about Jamaica” (actually this whole song, “Joke About Jamaica,” is pretty amusing, since it’s a sad song about a girl who gets snubbed by a bunch of snobby Led Zeppelin fans)

Another excellent effort by the Hold Steadies. Now it’s time for YANKEES PLAYOFF BASEBALL BABY. We have Ichiro. We can’t lose.

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