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The Hold Steady – Boys and Girls in America

February 12, 2007

I don’t know why it has taken me so long to give this a legitament review. I think the only reason I kept it sitting around was because I wanted to review it. And I had never really given it a completely fair listen because I wanted to wait until I really felt motivated to listen to it, which took a long time to happen. I guess I was interested not just because someone gave it to me but also because it got pretty close to the top of a lot of top album lists of last year, mostly in indie magazines and stuff. I’m listening to it now and I honestly can’t figure out why. Just look at the cover. That about explains it. This isn’t the men and women of America. This is the boys and girls of America, and it contains just enough naughty words to not be on Disney Radio and yet it just doesn’t try enough exciting to distance itself from that…adorable cursive handwriting. It’s not like the only reason I listened to this was so that I could bash it here, but to be honest I wasn’t exactly expecting too much even before I listened. In essence, this album is pop rock, and it’s even good pop rock, but it’s nothing that you haven’t heard and probably nothing you would feel bad about missing. It does what it tries to do very well, I just really dislike what it tries to do.

The songwriting here isn’t so bad. They know how to make an effective yet charmingly predictable hook. But the execution is just so mediocre and already played out. Most of the songs are dressed up with organ solos that would make even the sleaziest listener a fair bit bored, and the production is bad. It sounds too glossy and dressed up, even when you crank it pretty loud. There is no substance here, even when the guitars are at their hardest. And the organs and pianos get very trying as the album goes along. The home stretch of Same Kooks kind of sounds like some mediocre eighties lite metal group getting ahold of some organs and uninteresting guitar pedals. It’s really quite embarassing. The vocalist sucks too, I really don’t like him. He can’t sing, so he tries the Bright Eyes approach. Which is fine; I have nothing against Bright Eyes, but he really can’t sing at all so he uses a roundabout style where he essentially says the lyrics loudly with a bit of rhythm and spontaneity. But this guy, he just bumbles about with lyrics of sleazy high school fantasies, probably stuff that even the most fortunate of kids wish they could live, and without any real substance or meaning.

That is pretty much the soul of the album. It’s about as stress-free and unrealistic as you ever wished your high school experience could have been. The name “You Can Make Him Like You” pretty much sums that up. It’s juvenile. If you don’t like that word, it’s naive. Almost every song is handpicked to describe some kind of typical naive teenage situation, hence all the overly unrealistic happy jokes on the cover. First Night probably could have been good if it were a bit more interesting in it’s instrumentation (it’s that damn piano again, do something more interesting with it), but it’s just too much of a drunken singalong to really accomplish anything. Chips Ahoy! is another one of these such songs. It’s totally nothing you haven’t heard before. If you graduated middle school, you need not bother seeking anything fun here. This line is great. “He came out six lengths ahead/we spent the whole next weekend high.” If you grew up fifteen years ago and you were a careless valueless C student who might write “hobbies: smoking pot” on a job application, then this song might mean something. That just doesn’t apply to any listener. I really think this album tried to relate to peoples childhood experiences, and it just doesn’t. I know I sure as hell can’t relate to this album, and I’d be surprised if anyone could.

Repeated listens only make me question more and more how this got to the top of all those lists. It’s totally something you would hear on the weekly Top 40. In fact, if you flipped it on a few months ago, you probably would have heard it. I don’t feel bad that I have nothing to say about this except that it’s boring and hard to relate to. It’s too simple. You’ll get to about track five and feel satisfied enough to just shut it off it’s so naive. Most of the songs are wasted potential, but there are a few good ones, namely Citrus. If your high school years were the best years of your life and you like simple guitar driven pop rock, I guess go for it. But even then you could do a little better. It’s not a good sign when I can comfortably say without feeling like an elitist prick that I’m beyond this kind of stuff. Very few annoying teenagers have “massive nights,” or at least anything that this album would suggest. In a word, this is completely disposable. It’s a good album for it’s kind, that is, a completely childish naive rocker, but you’ve heard better, and this would never be anywhere close to memorable.

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