The Rich Girls Are Weeping

02 October 2006

You can make [the kids] like you. The big news this week at certain tables in the blog-o-teria, is, of course, the release of The Hold Steady's third album Boys and Girls in America.

You can decide to buy a hard copy of the album whilst listening to a stream of the entire album at Vagrant's site (which is only slightly worse, audio quality-wise, than an actual hard copy of the album -- you've been given fair warning) and reading Kelefa Sanneh's profile of the band and thin review of the album itself from the Times over the weekend, with its handy Hold Steady Guide to America travelogue multimedia feature. Or you can skip right to the 9.4 review at Pitchfork, which almost accurately crowns Craig Finn as America's Jarvis Cocker -- though nothing on this album is as strong as Cocker's latest, "Ruling the World" -- and uses the E Street Band and Happy Mondays as points of departure for discussion of the album's dizzying and oddly tinny over-production that would, I imagine, generally elicit sub-5.0 reviews from P-fork staffers.

On the other hand, in a reminder of the complete lack of real-worldiness here in the blog-o-teria, the NYT's new album review column today doesn't even deign to pass judgment, spending column space instead on what are sure to be the big sellers of the season, new albums, oddly enough, from indie label has-beens and still-ares: The Killers, Beck, The Decemberists, and Evanesence. (Yes, don't forget that Wind-Up, home of Evanesence, is still technically an indie label, and it's only slightly bigger than The Hold Steady's new home, Vagrant.)

Mr. Sanneh beat me to a lengthy explanation of The Hold Steady's ouevre to date, so I'll instead provide one in short: Almost Killed Me was a business plan/manifesto, Separation Sunday was the masterpiece concept album, and Boys and Girls in America is merely a clip show of flashbacks from the previous episodes threaded within the flimsy frame story about those boys and girls in America.

And that's ultimately where B&GIA fails as an album. For something so over-produced and thoroughly documented, it's a skimpy affair and the strong moments, like the continuing misadventures of Finn's narrator, Charlegmane, Holly, and Gideon in the Separation Sunday universe (on "Stuck Between Stations," "Chips Ahoy," and others on the first half of the album) are overshadowed by the songs strategically placed to make "the kids" like the band: The dreadful "Chillout Tent" makes one hate Western Mass. more than Bret Easton Ellis ever did; the ill-advised literary ventriloquism on "You Can Make Him Like You" leaves the song dripping with an uncomfortable misogyny that doesn't seem altogether fictional; the most Springsteen-aping (and that's saying a lot, really) Hold Steady song to date, "Southtown Girls" leaves the album hanging precariously on an oddly inconclusive note -- especially when compared to the more ambivalent aural impression of an abandoned car on the side of the road, door hanging open and chiming in the night at the end of "How A Resurrection Really Feels," the final song on Separation Sunday.

For someone so lauded for bringing smart literary (modern and biblical) and pop music history references to his songs, Mr. Finn's lyrics on B&GIA are notably missing the heft that made me love the band to begin with. Yes, the title is a reference to Kerouac's On The Road, but it seems calculatedly trite coming from someone who wrote an entire song referencing Nelson Algren. The notable exception here is the mention of John Barryman on opening track "Stuck Between Stations," but that song looks back, as previously mentioned, to the Separation Sunday milieu.

And after a few listens, one can almost begin to believe that B&GIA isn't for the kids at all-- no matter what Vagrant would like you to believe from the album's marketing campaign, or what hype-mongering verbage Pitchfork pushes. In fact, if you hold up the album and peer into its vaguest corners, you see a sharp critique of shallow scenster kids. The kids in "Chillout Tent" are amateurs playing at vice, OD'ing on 'shrooms at a festival in Western Mass., as opposed to the hardnened, scrabbling speedfreaks (documented musically on B&GIA's one great track, the strung-out Cliffs Notes-like "Same Kooks") haunting the streets of Minneapolis and Ybor City. And this is coming from the man with "the dream of a unified scene" back on Almost Killed Me.

Then again, the aforementioned Algren-laced track, "Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night" from Separation Sunday, was the first concrete document -- an entire song -- about of the band's active hostility toward their target audience. It's a contradiction that I've always seen as a major point of tension in the band's very existence. On the one hand, The Hold Steady seems proud that they were invited by a teacher in Columbine, CO to talk to his students about the literary aims of their music -- on the other, the band's shows at the end of the Separation Sunday tour were violent, messy affairs; on at least one occasion, I almost left in disgust as Finn taunted the kids in the crowd, raising their frothing angst to dangerous levels. This thought process, I think, but I'm not sure, punches a hole in Pitchfork scribe Stephen Deusner's comment that the album contains songs that "Finn's characters might want to listen to."

Hate to break it to you guys, but the kids aren't -- and won't be -- listening. Not really -- and Finn, it seems, might have already known that.

The Hold Steady -- Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night
The Hold Steady -- How A Resurrection Really Feels

Previously posted, from the archives:
The Hold Steady -- Stevie Nix
The Hold Steady -- The Swish


On a related note, I picked up Generation T at the library. It's one of the myriad craft books recently released that gives meticulous instructions on how to refurbish old t-shirts into something a little more fashionable. I laughed, though, upon reading the introduction when my suspicions about the author's provenance were confirmed. Megan Nicolay is the sister of Hold Steady keyboardist (and TRGAW fave member of the band), Franz Nicolay, also of The World/Inferno Friendship Society.


Blogger chacal la chaise said...

how fun. just the other day, the judge said she flipped thru gen T at, where else, urbane outfitters...will wonders never cease? the judge, at outfits to be tied...

Monday, October 02, 2006 5:31:00 PM  
Blogger Pinkie von Bloom said...

at the risk of sounding all rock'n'roll: it's your choice, the hold steady show i had the displeasure of attending was the most negative environments i've ever willingly put myself into. i saw miserable men playing half-assed rock to kids they were mocking. maybe it's colored by my own experiences, but being a rockstar is like any other vocation: when you're completely miserable and are invested in making others feel the same way, it's really time to change jobs, even if being a rockstar is all that you know how to do.

Monday, October 02, 2006 6:01:00 PM  
Blogger cindy hotpoint said...

You know, they don't even have that excuse. Craig Finn, accountant/middle management. Tad Kubler, photographer. Galen Polivka, bartender. Franz Nicolay, teacher. I have no idea what Bobby does for real money, though.

BTW, I am going to take this moment to mention that in spite of everything, the album art is really lovely and fantastic.

Monday, October 02, 2006 6:07:00 PM  
Blogger Ben Goetting said...

Thanks for the shout out on the art =)

Monday, October 02, 2006 7:19:00 PM  
Anonymous jeremiah said...

Wow. I've seen them twice since April and the shows were really upbeat happy affairs. Sunday at Irving Plaza was practically Andrew WK-ish in the amount of love thrown to the audience. I wonder what that's all about. (Agree on Boys and Girls so far, though.)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006 10:34:00 AM  
Blogger cindy hotpoint said...

ben: it's a well deserved compliment! pls. tell sasha she has the bestest handwriting EVER! any chance we can make it into a font or something?

Tuesday, October 03, 2006 11:09:00 AM  
Blogger cindy hotpoint said...

jeremiah: i saw the last show on the SS tour @ Webster Hall, and seriously, I got slammed into the stage twice and nearly punched some 17 year old kid for drunkenly ramming into me repeadtedly throughout the night. at one point, some girl looked like she was gonna get violent with a broken beer bottle. needless to say, it was one of the most hostile show environments i've ever been in, and that's saying A LOT, given my ancient age. and, as a bonus: one of my gal pals fared much worse at a HS show at Warsaw earlier this year and had the bruises to prove it.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006 11:13:00 AM  
Blogger cindy hotpoint said...

and, as an addendum, up until that point, all the HS shows i'd been to really were fun and enjoyable, even if i was hit in the head not once, but twice, by mr. finn's guitar -- at two different shows. (;

i'm actually kinda wary of seeing them here in austin later this week.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006 11:15:00 AM  
Anonymous jeremiah said...

Huh! Strange - one of the shows I was at was the Warsaw one. There is a lot to be said, evidently, for staying in middle third of the crowd.

I will say that most of the new stuff sounds much better live than on the album, but, geez, it's nothing worth getting threatened with a broken bottle over. (And nothing, but nothing, is worth having to put up with a drunk 17-year old.)

Tuesday, October 03, 2006 11:43:00 AM  
Blogger James said...

I actually really like BAGIA and, previously, The Hold Steady have never really done it for me. Maybe I needed the polish and fish-in-a-barrel immediacy of the new record. Does that make me shallow?

I've been back to Separation Sunday since and found myself liking it more than I did before, but I'm still digging the directness of BAGIA more.

Sorry girls, going to have to agree to disagree with you on this one, although I must concede that I can see how it would be a letdown from a Hold Steady fan's perspective.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006 11:47:00 AM  
Blogger pageblank said...

A reference to Jack Kerouac passes as a deep literary reference these days? I think Girls Aloud make more pertinent literary references.

I also think I'm in the wrong life stage to like the Hold Steady. Drunken bar-rock is just not my thing.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006 12:40:00 PM  
Blogger cindy hotpoint said...

That was totally my point. Kerouac is about about the shallowest literary reference you can make, really.

Meanwhile, Girls Aloud lyrics are bizzarely fascinating modern poetry. No kidding. Meta-pop-platitudes.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006 12:53:00 PM  
Blogger pageblank said...

Yes! Their lyrics (whoever actually writes them) are often fantastically dense with ironic referencing, internal rhymes and assonance (cf "Swinging London Town").

PFers (and indie kids) seem to generally have embarrassingly poor knowledge of literature. Which is fine when you concentrate on music and don't bother to sound literate. But when you do, it's often only cringeworthy. I remember a review on PF that tried to summarize Barth's "Night-Sea Journey." The only problem was that the reviewer didn't know that the story is from the perspective of sperm.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006 2:29:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not all PFers. Bowers teaches modern poetry. He mentioned Wallace Stevens in a review once, too.
In any case, PF is doing a little hype-mongering. I read them daily and I still can't belive that review.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006 3:45:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I was a huge Seperation Sunday fan and am enjoying BAGIA so far, but am only on my second spin (stream), so it'll take some more time.
I thought you had a really interesting perspective on their realtionship with the listener, though - what you called "the band's active hostility toward their target audience." It reminded me of a point that Frank Kogan makes in his book Real Punks Don't Wear Black. He says that part of the "punk rock aesthetic" is to let the audience participate in their own rejection. For instance, in the Rolling Stones' "Get Off Of My Cloud," the call and response - "Hey! (Hey!) You! (You!) Get off of my cloud" let's the listener identify with Jagger, if you look at it one way. But on the flip-side, Jagger's also telling the listener to shove off, and their saying "Yeah! You are way cooler than us. You should despise us. And that's why we buy your records."
Perhaps a similar relationship is at play between Finn and the scenesters?
Plus, yeah, Kerouac is a shallow literary reference, but doesn't that make it a good vehicle for talking about shallow people? I don't get the impression that Finn is so removed from his subject matter or "characters."

Tuesday, October 03, 2006 5:21:00 PM  
Blogger cindy hotpoint said...

Re: Kerouac -- I was trying to say, and probably did a bad job of doing so -- that it is an intentionally shallow reference, and that's what makes the whole album, and the band's relationship with their audience so problematic.

I'm trying to decide if there's any other band I could discuss in a similar fashion, and there really isn't. Which is kind of weird.

Obviously, we could go into MtGoat territory, but John and Peter's relationship with the audience is both slightly detached and almost too-close-for-comfort personal. It's a different vibe.

There's something vaguely punk-ish and/or hostile bar band (ha!) about THS's group persona, either onstage or off. I'm assuming this is somewhat intentional -- and it's something I touched on a little, as did Sanneh, to a greater degree, in his profile.

Anyway, I had a point here about one's personal relationship with the music. I guess in the end, I felt let down by B&GIA. I don't want to point fingers and cry sellout, because holy crap, they should totally make some money doing what they love. I wanted a better record, and it just didn't happen. I'm glad other people are enjoing it though. And don't get me wrong, I'll probably still go to shows and keep up with the band, etc. I'm sure everything will be all right in the end. Maybe.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006 4:41:00 PM  
Blogger J Frank Parnell said...

You know, i've never tried to use gender in an assessment of a band's music, but days of trying to put my finger on just what isn't 9.4 about the Hold Steady have left me no choice:

In the long run, girls won't like it.

And this is what I said to youngster fans, at work, to defend my ultimate passing on Finn's Randy Newman vs. the Tubes schtick.

I hope that doesn't reduce your cogent analysis of the new HS too much.

But the sales are telling me I'm right so far.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006 10:38:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cindy, I think we are largely agreeing with each other; sorry if I just reiterated some things you had basically said already.
I'm just saying that I find that tension between band/audience interesting, but I recognize that to other people it might just seem annoying/boring/cruel.
J Frank - interesting point about gender (Cindy also mentioned "an uncomfortable misogyny that doesn't seem altogether fictional" in "You Can Make Him Like You"). I think the reason the new album can feel a bit sickening is that the sleaze is not represented as raw sleaze (a la Seperation Sunday), but as glossy shiny sleaze that kids will want to sing along with. This does make the whole affair somewhat less attractive.

Thursday, October 05, 2006 3:03:00 PM  
Blogger candy hotpants said...

I dunno if it's really a gender thing, I think, if things really must be reduced to something, The Hold Steady are a taste best enojoyed whilst thoroughly wasted.

Friday, October 06, 2006 5:11:00 PM  
Blogger cindy hotpoint said...

I think the reason the new album can feel a bit sickening is that the sleaze is not represented as raw sleaze (a la Seperation Sunday), but as glossy shiny sleaze that kids will want to sing along with. This does make the whole affair somewhat less attractive.

Ryan, I belive you've hit the nail on the head with this observation. I think, in the end, this is what I was trying to say. When The Hold Steady are tarted up intellectually, they're compelling and interesting. When they're dumbed-down, is it a meta-commentary, or something more irresponsible? I'm afraid it's the latter.

Friday, October 06, 2006 5:13:00 PM  
Blogger J Frank Parnell said...

And musically? The HS too infrequently hit the right semiotic nerve points to cover themselves with the "we're just a bar band to entertain you' excuse. They never do anything that makes me think I'm laughing with them, but in a dirty sense, digging a style I'm forbidden to dig because it just isn't cool. They don't reinvent bar rock, like The Sword do with stoner metal (their singing 'I will kill the spider beast' just kills me everytime) or even the Darkness with glam metal, or say, Richard Hawley with early sixties pop.

And I think that's because they're just not good at it. It has to somewhat be in your bones -- you can't riff on a previously established style, no matter how corny, if you're a total poseur to that style in the first place. These guys are hipsters. Look at their clothes. It doesn't work.

I'd have a shitload more respect for Finn if he'd gone to a dump roadhouse outside Cincinatti and enlisted a true bar band. Something like balding 40+ hippies with mustaches in stonewashed jeans and white hightops called Master of Disaster, doubling in the day as a mulleted wedding band. That'd be funny and simulatenously wonderful - musically. And I might listen to what he had to say then. Cause I'd figure he loved America more.

Sunday, October 08, 2006 12:37:00 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So what if he hates hipsters, hipsters hate hipsters.

Saturday, October 14, 2006 8:14:00 PM  

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