Despite interludes of discouragement and depressive storytelling, “Stay Positive,” the newest release from bar-rock group The Hold Steady, manages to uphold the album’s namesake.
Utilizing, in varying proportions, two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards and the raw vocal energy of Craig Finn, the band also manages to blur the lines of what would conventionally be considered classic rock with pop instrumentals and punk oomph.
Opening with “Constructive Summer,” they set the pace of this album with loudly-announced, tightly-packed imagery that elevates the disposition of the listener.
Judging by this song, it is easy to see why critics described them as “riff heavy” and “lyrically dense” during the tour of their last album in 2007.
Neither phrase is insulting, but both illustrate their habit of beginning each piece with a mood-setting instrumental. This often mixes highly effective piano or organ progressions with the rhythm or bass section before diving into unbroken narrative.
After delivering the rock anthem opener, the second track, “Sequestered in Memphis,” establishes the album’s recurring theme of problems with the law – in this case trial deliberations – but eventually showcases the band’s Midwestern roots with a litany of small-town America portraits.
“One for the Cutters” keeps the trend, dealing with an affluent young woman who parties with the “townies” while away at college. It seems a strange story for a group of middle-aged rockers to tell – until one realizes it also speaks of universal humanity and the inequities of the justice system. With a melodic harpsichord introduction and smooth background, a delicate balance is maintained between the rock edge and a sympathetic protagonist.
In “Joke about Jamaica,” the band deals with the influence of drugs and alcohol in a city in the middle of a prairie, where Finn’s lyrics frame the hedonism of the moment as something magical amidst the naiveté of youth. As the track progresses the guitar kicks in with an unearthly vocal quality, guttural and reminiscent of Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride.”
The band lightens the mood with the optimistic title track “Stay Positive.” An inspired backup chorus breathes life into the arrangement, as Finn foretells the overcoming of troubles ahead. The song sums up recurring themes found throughout the entire album. There is certainly no lack of sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll in The Hold Steady’s music, but despite utilizing the staples of a genre, it manages to stay independent and even unsettling.
“Stay Positive” is an excellent album to load on an iPod and give a good listen when there’s time to take in all the images and meaning. It just may not be the sort of thing to crank up the base and rock out to on a Saturday night.