The Hold Steady

Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant Records 06) Rating: A
With critical acclaim accompanying Almost Killed Me (2004) and (even more so) Separation Sunday (2005) and this album appearing on many year-end top 10 critic lists along with "early Bruce Springsteen meets Thin Lizzy" descriptions, I just had to check these guys out. After all, those are two of my all-time favorite artists, and fortunately this album lived up to my sky-high expectations. For one thing, it smartly clocks in at a manageable 40-minute length, containing a mere 11 tracks, none of which are worse than good and several of which are outstanding. Rapid fire riffs that stick, dual guitar harmonies a la Lizzy, appealingly bright keyboard/piano colorings, a rocking rhythm section, and group leader Craig Finn's oft-quotable, story-based lyrics about assorted teenage drunks and druggies are this albums primary selling points. He's not a great singer by any means, and in fact his one-note range wears a bit thin over the course of the entire album, but there are quite a few catchy sing along choruses and even a beer soaked ballad or two for variety's sake. Finn's excellent lyrics are nothing if not wordy and literate, not unlike early Springsteen, whose early vocal style his talk-singing most recalls. As such, it's fitting that "Stuck Between Stations," arguably the quintessential Hold Steady song, strongly begins the album by referencing Jack Kerouc and paying tribute to poet John Barryman, and the catchy first single "Chips Ahoy!" tells a typically interesting story, this one about a girl who can't stop winning at the race track and spending her winnings on drugs. As for the other plentiful highlights, "First Night" is a stellar ballad (dare I call it a "power ballad"?), "Party Pit" and "You Can Make Him Like You" have some of the albums most memorable vocal hooks (the latter song in particular would've been a hit in a just world), "Chillout Tent" is enhanced by the lovely little girl vocals of Elizabeth Elmore (Soul Asylum's Dave Pirner vocally assists as well) and another strong melody, and "Southtown Girls" ends the album with a rousing, anthemic sing along. That said, having pointed out this albums clear highlights to me, what I most appreciate about Boys and Girls in America is the consistent high quality of its songs, the first-rate musicianship of the so-called "bar band" performing them, and the rich cast of characters who populate this album and whose struggles and triumphs are always well-worth following.

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