I HAD SOME WORRIES. Tantamount among those that the Hold Steady would grow up or evolve or get "creative" and ditch the great sound they got huge for. Besides Craig Finn's recurring characters and unmistakable vocals, the band's update of Born to Run Springsteen was fiery on 2004's Almost Killed Me and downright magic on last year's Separation Sunday. A lot of people (critics) have called it "bar rock" which is a vague way of explaining what's going on—the organ and piano playing off each other, the big whopping Thin Lizzy riffs, Finn's spoken/half-sung rasp playing off the melodies that get endlessly stuck in your head.
I had some worries, sure—but on the new record, our guys deliver and deliver and deliver. Boys and Girls in America starts off with a Kerouac quote and "Stuck Between Stations," their most Born to Run to date. The rest of the album follows suit with all the Separation Sunday-style catchiness and unashamed guitar solos, only this time it's produced beautifully into this vigorous, rowdy uppercut. "Chips Ahoy!" is hockey-rink organ and stories about compulsive sex and a girl with a good eye for horses. "Hot Soft Light" reminds you that Finn used to be in a punk band (Lifter Puller) and then washes all that away with wah pedal licks. "Same Kooks" is a punk song. "First Night" runs slow and boozy; the piano makes me think of the Pogues, but as soon as Finn starts sing-talking you know you're in a Hold Steady song; all the old characters from Separation Sunday are back—Holly the Hoodrat, Charlemagne, Gideon. It's this tidy little universe Finn creates—swapping storylines throughout his records, revisiting the fates of familiar characters—that makes the new album so easy to get into. You feel like you're placed right back into your favorite movie, plunked down in the Twin Cities again, getting high, getting born again (again) on the banks of the Mississippi River. These could easily be Separation Sunday outtakes if they weren't so much bigger sounding and better produced.
Is Boys and Girls a better record than Separation Sunday? I'm hesitant to say. Mostly—mainly—because I've spent so much time living in Separation Sunday that I've memorized every inch of its real estate. Really, I haven't given this new one enough time to simmer. What I will say is the record feels right. The part of me that wants short stories for songs, American-feeling music, and all-around toughness is in love with this album and ready to play it into the ground. Is playing an album into the ground the same as listening to an album to death? This, I'm willing to risk.