The Hold Steady: The Price Of Progress [Album Review]

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The Hold Steady
The Price Of Progress
Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers [2023]

With 20 years and eight albums worth of songs under their belt, The Hold Steady are now a recognizable quantity. Coming together in Minneapolis their classic rock meets punk guitar rock vibe showed signs of taking to heart local music heroes like The Replacements and Husker Du, while singer and lyricist Craig Finn, who also has five solo albums, tends to tell stories that reflect the influence of writers like Bruce Springsteen and The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle. So, it’s no surprise that this 9th album opens with a rugged electric guitar rhythm that falls into a solid drum groove, as organ swell’s provide texture and the occasional piano note rings out like a church bell, while Finn describes the common struggle for significance: “It hurts being human/But our instincts will keep us alive/We do what we do to survive.” Lead guitarist Tad Kubler’s solo delivers sharp, choppy notes like an ice pick, and the ensemble serves the rough and tumble textures, while Finn’s sing-songy melody, that actually recalls the heavier part of Billy Joel’s “Piano Man.”

Hearing the record this Spring, I was reminded of seeing the band at the first of their “Massive Nights 2022” four-night-stand at the Brooklyn Bowl, where the band had relocated, after Thanksgiving while on a trip the NYC. Watching these seasoned players play a 25 song show that opened with “Positive Jam” and ended with “Killer Parties,” their devoted fans singing along loudly on everything but getting louder on songs like “Party Pit,” “Stevie Nix” and “Southtown Girls,” joining Finn to affirm that “we are all The Hold Steady.” They played four from their most recent release, Open Door Policy, but the one that stuck out to me was “Lanyard,” which followed the evening’s one new song from the promised next album. That song was the first one I wanted to listen to here, It’s the single, “Sideways Skull,” a fast-rollicking guitar and piano rocker with a quiet, piano interlude mid-track played by Franz Nicolay before the congas come in, and soon the whole band is back in, driving the track home at full energy.

But listening to the recording, it’s clear this song is a perfect companion to “Lanyards.” In fact it’s so in Finn’s lane, so familiar to his entire oeuvre, that I was tempted to fantasize that the lyric could have been created by one of those artificial intelligence language generators that some of my friends have been playing with, wondering what prompts you’d have to provide. Something like, write a song lyric in the style of Craig Finn, write it about a girl with a larger-than-life personality, name drop a classic rocker, mix in lots of drugs, ego-posturing and insecurity, and plenty of rock & roll cliches. Which would fit, because Finn actually wrote of a femme fatale who wears “Faded denim with buttons and badges/Laminates and backstage passes/Jacket held together by rock band patches,” and “Beatle boots and the glam rock top hat.” “She had a hairbrush mic and a fantasy band,” but the performance is only a modest success because “It’s hard to fully rock in a halfway house.” As for the song’s narrator, he’s taken with the girl that he’s met in rehab, but he knows the stories told around the kitchen table are BS even as he admits at the end that “It’s nice to meet some fellow musicians.” Hilarious, and he name dropped “Robert Plant” for extra points. In the future, it’s definitely going to be a highlight at those Massive Nights shows.

But while those two opening tracks fall pretty neatly into the edgy guitar rock of earlier albums, like Teeth Dreams, much of The Price of Progress finds the band expanding their musical palette, adding a more cinematic character to the arrangements, adding horns to a track like “The Birdwatchers,” and a quieter interlude as well as a big, crunchy guitar driven chorus. Along with Finn and Kubler, bassist Galen Polivka has been there since the band formed in 2003. Drummer Bobby Drake came on board in 2005, as did Nicolay, but he left in 2010 and only returned in 2016, while second guitarist (third if you count Finn on rhythm) Steve Selvidge has been playing with the band for 6 years. So, there was a definite chemistry among the six players when I saw them play live that translates nicely onto these recordings, the band again working with producer Josh Kaufman, returning to comfortable nearby studios and working with long-time engineer D. James Goodwin.

At the other end of the musical spectrum, the band turns in a quieter, gentle jazzy pop performance on “Distortions of Faith,” a curious song about a female musician and her band all set up to play a concert in a third-world dictatorship that had been promoted as “A Gift to the People.” A violent skirmish breaks out, the crowd is shrouded in tear gas, while she and her band are swept off to the airport to escape danger. Her husband tries to cheer her with the fact that “at least we got paid.” The light groove is solid, with gentle guitars and I think the drummer is even using brushes, and smartly the song lingers for an extra couple minutes after Finn has finished the lyric. In a show of musical dexterity, “Carlos Is Crying” opens with a light funky rhythm before it builds to its more intense conclusion. The lyric is about a kid who was a skater, but is struggling to cope with the pressures of grown up adult life, since he’s lost his job and is worried about his sister and her “dickhead” boyfriend. Like so many of his tales, people are dealing with challenges while seeking some sense of redemption, some sense of self as they hope to attain something akin to the American dream.

In “Understudies,” the band moderates between smart syncopation and tense musical interactions while Finn sings the verses about the challenges theater people deal with when they’re not on stage performing, where strong orchestrations support the melody. “Sixers” is another with a funkier beat, with the keys and guitars trading fills with the solid rhythm parts, the guitarists adding some double leads as the tempo builds. The piano recalls E Street band accents, and the twin guitars add nicely, as the song builds and quiets again with Springsteen-like cadences. The guitars are back on top in “City at Eleven,” but there’s a quirky beat that leaves room for the bassline to shine, but Kubler gets in some smart, bright fills.

There’s plenty of musical interaction from the players even in the quieter tracks, but for my money this band is at its best as things are ramping up, like on the album closer, “Flyover Halftime,” which opens with the drums and bass establishing the sturdy groove. Guitars and rock & roll piano take time adding texture as Finn tells a fun story about some guys who partied a bit over the top in their car before a big game. One of them runs onto the field, grabs the ball and heads for the endzone while the announcers report “We’ve got a fan on the field/We’re going to cut to commercial… Let’s not make him a legend.” He looks like he might make it to the end zone as his friends are filming from the stands, when security gives him a beating, and his drunk friends are forced to “concede defeat.”

It’s a curious thing, most of the regular folk who people the stories in Finn’s lyrics find themselves down if not completely out by the end of the tale, yet in song after song on the live stage, Finn’s talk/sing vocals pull a supportive, celebrative response from the fans. If we identify with the struggles and challenges faced by the often emotionally stilted folk in the songs, we find solace in fellow-travelers who will join us as we tell off our oppressive bosses and curse the romantic partner who let us down. We can lift a drink to whatever comes next and take comfort that “we’re all The Hold Steady.” There’s catharsis and joy in the music, the fun sing-alongs, and “The Price of Progress” adds very nicely to all that has gone before, anthems to carry us through the challenges we all know await us when the music stops.

“Sideways Skull” / “Understudies” / “Sixers”

The Raconteurs / Modest Mouse / Built To Spill

Open Door Policy (2021) / Thrashing Thru The Passion (2019) / Teeth Dreams (2014)

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Brian Q. Newcomb

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