Wednesday, February 4, 2009

The Hold Steady: Lord, I'm Encouraged

There are some bands whose sound lends itself to adjectives like 'full', 'rich', 'robust'. The Band comes to mind straight away. So does Springsteen and the E-Street Band. Blind Faith. Everything Van Morrison did after Astral Weeks. Bob Dylan's incredible current lineup. Maybe Traffic at their peak. It has something to do with the the instruments used (try finding that sound without a piano, guitars, bass, drums at least), the vocals (honest, artifice-free) and that wonderful feeling one gets when one hears something that is greater than the sum of its parts. It has nothing to do with how the band should be rated, and is a rotten way to compare bands with disparate sounds (Barenakedladies could classify as a unison band a lot easier than Radiohead, but only a pedantic bore would actually try and make that comparison).

This richness, robustness and fullness, is precisely what defines the sound of The Hold Steady. They came out with an album last year ('Stay Positive', their fourth in all) which trod over the weak hip-hop and R&B bleats populating radio circa 2008 with a sound so instantly memorable you knew you were going to be listening to it the next summer, and the next. It kicks off with the best opening lines of an album since that British group with the weird name said something about her being just seventeen - a voice boasting over a jagged guitar riff "Me and my friends are like the drums on 'Lust for Life'". They follow that up later with the equally brilliant "Me and my friends are like double whiskey, coke no ice" but the point has already been made.

But as Leonard Cohen fans know in their hearts, you can say whatever you want, but you better have a sound that supports it. The Hold Steady have perfected theirs. It has a lot in common with Asbury Park-era Springsteen, with its slurred, gurgled vocals and the breadth and ambition of the music surrounding them. But there are apparent punk and classic rock influences, and nods to country and raggae as well. There are memorable shoutouts to Iggy Pop, Joe Strummer and even John Cassevates ('Slapped Actress') and some beautiful songwriting when they decide to slow down (the distressing 'Lord, I'm Discouraged').

I speak for myself (and with every successive post, I feel like I am also speaking to myself alone) when I say that this is the best album of the year gone by (I challenge impartial listeners to say 'Viva la Vida' is more memorable). I also hope I speak for the larger majority of those who like their music honest and rousing (if it still exists), when I say that this is the kind of album we would like to see more often in the future. Saving rock 'n roll is what every promising post-Nirvana band is charged with. That's small fry - on the evidence of this album, these guys could save your soul.

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