It’d almost be too easy to hate The Hold Steady. Almost universally referred to as ‘America’s best bar band,’ the New Yorkers combine whisky soaked tales of teenage indiscretion with good-time rock n’ roll to fantastically populist results, all delivered in the kind of gruff “cwaffee” Brooklyn accent that could be lethal to most groups. And with songs called things like Massive Nights and You Can Make Him Like You, all the signs point to another identikit Matchbox 20 or Goo Goo Dolls soundalike.
However, with superlative magazine reviews for this, their third album proper, and hipper-than-thou websites like Pitchfork and Popmatters tripping over themselves to offer plaudit after plaudit, The Hold Steady seem to have quickly eased themselves out of the kind of moribund soft-rock cliché they could so easily have fallen into and pulled off a difficult trick – marrying rabid critical and popular acclaim.
Taking their marks from anthemic rock of years gone by, Boys And Girls In America is a shamelessly good natured, big-hearted plug for the American dream. There’s more than a whiff of The E Street Band, with chiming pianos, effortless chord changes and wide-screen guitar solos. There’s the ‘whoah-whoah’s and fist pumping choruses of The Replacements. There’s even the odd recurring character propping up a bar somewhere, drinking, taking dodgy drugs and attempting to get laid.
It should be an overblown, riotous mess, but it’s perfectly held together by musicians seemingly forged as one by long nights in spit and sawdust boozers, and in singer Craig Finn, a lyricist of remarkable poise and eloquence.
From the opening Stuck Between Stations, an ode to the great American poet John Berryman, you can tell that the album will be something special. With a perfectly poppy guitar rift that could have been beamed in from any Fountains Of Wayne album, backed by lyrics like “there are nights when I think that Sal Paradise was right / boys and girls in America have such a sad time together / sucking off each other at the demonstrations / making sure their makeup’s straight” this is a literate, fond but never cloying record.
After the faintly embarrassing sight of Brandon Flowers donning a leather jacket and attempting to emulate The Boss on the recent Killers single When You Were Young, it’s refreshing to see a band not only emulate, but update Born To Run’s heroic young Americana. Instead of celebrating drunken losers weeping gently into their whisky, the protagonists in Boys And Girls in America all seem to be having a bloody good time, even on songs like the consciously lighters aloft Last Night, when “Holly’s inconsolable / unhinged and uncontrollable / because we can’t get as high as we got on that first night”.
They manage the difficult feat of pulling off a completely irony-free take on growing up in America, with the kind of sentimentality that only someone who’s been there, done that and bought the t-shirt could do. Instead of either dewy-eyed Summer Of ’69 corniness or whining about how bored they were as kids, The Hold Steady just seemed to have a ball, or at least don’t regret screwing up over and over again. It may be because lead singer Craig Finn looks more like Keith from The Office than the identikit frontmen of Maroon 5 and the Goo Goo Dolls, but the music somehow rings truer than, say, a Bon Jovi record, especially when Finn talks about a girl who takes too many mushrooms and “she got sick / now she’s pinned and way too shaky / she don’t want to tell the doc tor everything she’ s taken” (the gloriously bittersweet Chillout Tent).
There will be many who can’t stand The Hold Steady. Especially on this side of the Atlantic, any band that will, without irony, post a letter from a fan on their homepage saying “you guys are actually the reason that my boyfriend and I fell in love!” will be viewed with sceptic ism at best, and downright disgust at worst. And because they are so ludicrously American, with the kind of crossover appeal that will see pissed MTV springbreakers and asymmetrically haired hipsters bellowing along to the jaunty Chips Ahoy! in clubs, they may leave Brits cold. But, with the amount of praise already heaped on them, these naysayers will almost certainly be in the minority.