I bought The Hold Steady’s Separation Sunday in the fall of 2006 and, if I remember correctly, returned it within the day. Craig Finn’s “singing,” a deliriously boozy shout that insisted upon itself like a drunk coach at the bar, put me off so fast that I didn’t give the record time to work its charms. I bought it back a few weeks later and slowly came to love it. The band burned like whiskey and there wasn’t any doubting Finn’s tragicomic stories of private school kids who stumbled onto skid row and couldn’t quite find their way out.
Last year The Hold Steady have issued Boys and Girls in America, in which Craig actually sang sometimes and there was overwrought organ and they sounded more like a house band and less like a basement band. I didn’t like it, and it didn’t really connect with me. With Stay Positive, and the continuation and extension of the things I disliked about Boys and Girls, I have to acknowledge that they’ve taken another step forward and the basement brawlers I fell in love with a couple years ago are gone. So that’s that. That band is buried.
These new guys are awesome. It’s not a perfect record: the organ drowns a lot of the rockers in bombast and they sound a little samey, but Finn’s lyrics are as sharp as ever and his melodies (!!!!) are worthy of stadium sing-alongs. Only the title track nods (lyrically and vocally) back to the days of Separation Sunday, but with the surrounding material being so good I don’t miss it as much. “Constructive Summer” will make you feel 16 every time you listen to it, and when you read the lyrics you’ll understand why you need to feel a little bit 16 every day of your life [nb: if I were “publishing” this I would remove this line as it’s some pap but fuck it]. “Two Crosses” almost sounds like a Nebraska outtake.
I don’t have any stories about The Gaslight Anthem, but that’s fitting as they’ve got plenty of their own and I’d only get in the way. I don’t have any context for this band, so maybe there are a thousand punk rock kids pretending to be Springsteen up in the northeast, but this band’s sophomre record The ’59 Sound is rocking my world since I heard it a couple months ago.
The two records have a lot in common. Both bands owe a huge debt to Springsteen’s Soaring Sentimental Americana™ template. There’s a lot of Darkness on the Edge of Town‘s tragic exuberance in Stay Postive and The ’59 Sound is standing on the shoulders of Born to Run, to say nothing of the fact that they’re also both following in the footsteps of The Replacements, but they have two distinct voices.
The Hold Steady are the older siblings, and they look back on their not-too-distant wilder days with wry smiles and a twinge of regret. They weren’t sure they’d survive, but now that they’re through the fire they miss the burn a little bit. They’ve seen it all before and they had fun while they fucked up, but they’ve also seen the point where “it’ll probably get druggy and the kids’ll seem too skinny” and they’ll try to warn you away. The Gaslight Anthem are the sound of the kids who won’t listen because they’re too wrapped up in their youth. The ’59 Sound has blue-eyed soul crooning, massive road trip rockers, and bruised righteousness to spare.
And now I’ve written too much, so I’ll shut up and let the songs talk. They’ll be up tonight.
EDIT: Here they are. The first is a “Save As,” the rest are links.
Gaslight Anthem — “Miles Davis & The Cool”