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.