I get the Hold Steady. The references to "chill-out tents" and "party pits," the boozing post-college bar rock, the love of pop culture, indie minutia, drugs, and Thin Lizzy—all of those things, I get. In fact—and this is not a compliment to either the band or myself—I even look like a guy who'd be in the Hold Steady. No band ever has ever hit closer to my demographic than they have, but all these reasons are not why Boys and Girls in America is one of the best albums of 2006.
Naming your best record after a Kerouac quote, "Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together," is an act of optimism, and irony, not lost on the Hold Steady. As a contraction on so many levels, the Hold Steady are quite possibly the smartest band in rock music, and yet they are content to exist as a modest bar band. If there were a badge for shooting yourself in the foot, for such romantic self-destruction, the Hold Steady would wear it with pride. But what can you expect when your home-state heroes are Hüsker Dü and the Replacements? Like or not, to claim indie and Minneapolis, you inherit the ghost of unfulfilled talent, hard drinking, and blue-collar charm. Boys and Girls in America is a testament to all these things, as the songs are loaded with well-intentioned folks—people like you or me, I suppose—who just do bad (or dumb) things, and are content to just deal with the swirling consequences of their (most likely drunken) actions. Expecting the best, and accepting the worst, the Hold Steady's Midwest c'est la vie is like gospel to a generation of adults caught between the wonder of childhood and the sad resignation of finally just growing the fuck up.
Yet despite all of this, it's the Hold Steady's live show that makes Boys and Girls in America attain its importance. Never mind the band, who are always both too drunk to stand and too flawless to be slumming it in the indie ghetto, because the Hold Steady concert is all about the fans. It's like a pathetic clip from Indierockers Gone Wild, as spectacled record clerks drunkenly lift their cardigans to reveal pasty mounds of flesh and cross-armed cynics playfully moshing, reliving that brief teenage window of rock optimism. It's like fantasy camp for a demographic of music fans that have long since stopped having fun at shows.
"Rock critics love Van Halen and hate me because rock critics look like me, but want to party with David Lee Roth."—Elvis Costello, 1979
That quote might be the truest statement in rock, and no one knows that better than the Hold Steady's frontman Craig Finn. With bigger production, loftier goals, and the same old party songs peppered with pop culture references galore, it only seems right that they changed so much, while still staying exactly same. Elvis Costello owes the Hold Steady an apology, since they've managed to take an army of fans with the substitute teacher looks of Craig Finn, and at least for one night, turn them all into Diamond Daves.