Commentary

Hold Steady now, you asked for it

Updated: April 7, 2009, 4:10 PM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

The Hold Steady's most recent album, "Stay Positive," is better than I expected, but not as good as I was told to expect.

Hear and see more about The Hold Steady.

Discussing trendy indie bands is a losing proposition. There's no way to please everyone. Actually, there's no way to please anyone. As I discuss The Hold Steady, almost every reader will fall on one side or the other of my opinion. For every die-hard fan who employs Hold Steady ringtones and wields Hold Steady key chains, there will be a person who rejects whatever I say out of hand, just because he's never heard anything by The Hold Steady.

The only benefit to me is that I can write whatever I want. If I'm not going to make anyone happy, there's no reason to try.

My first impression, upon tuning in to "Stay Positive," was that the lead singer can't sing.

(Thereby pissing off superfan.)

But after I gave the record a few chances, I warmed to it. It made me think of good bourbon in a cozy Midwestern bar late on a Thursday night.

(Thereby pissing off indie-detester.)

Now that no one's left, I can get on with this thing.

I'm writing about The Hold Steady because, a few weeks ago, I asked for nominations of albums that readers would like to see reviewed. Because I'm an ill-prepared idiot, I listed an album that hadn't been released: The Steady's "A Positive Rage" double live album and DVD comes out today. I can only assume that whichever readers wanted me to pontificate about the Hold Steady wanted me to do that pontificating about the already-released album with "Positive" in the title, last summer's "Stay Positive." So that's what I'm doing.

As I mentioned when I put The Hold Steady to a vote, I saw the band live a few years ago. I had been told to expect great things, but I left the venue unimpressed. Since then, I've largely ignored the band while critics have spent the past years pleasuring them in print. I have a little indie-detester in me, too. If someone tells me over and over how great a band is, I will eventually despise that band out of spite. And yes, I'm aware of my contrarian nature.

My tendency to dismiss critically lauded bands isn't entirely illogical. I've talked about this before: Within the independent music community, there often exists a phenomenon I liken to a feeding frenzy. When it happens, a band is touted by two or three publications as the next big thing. This initial surge makes it difficult for critics to be honest; they don't want to be shouted down by anonymous Internet fanboys. It's easier to go along for the ride. If you doubt the verity of my theory, try listening to Sonic Youth sometime.

But mine is not necessarily the best way to behave. I should do a better job of listening to music before dismissing it. I also promise to eat less gluten and write more thank-you notes.

I was glad The Hold Steady won the mini-vote. I've been given an opportunity to show that I'm capable of giving someone (a band) a second chance. Here are my impressions:

On "Stay Positive," The Hold Steady reminds me of The National and the Drive-By Truckers, while not being quite good as either. The lyrics on the album are outstanding, but lyrics only take me so far. I appreciate the classic rock influences, but a new take on classic rock can only hold my attention for so long.

To be fair, I'm basing these judgments on one album. I should note, too, that when I write that the lyrics are outstanding, I mean it. From the song, "Sequestered in Memphis":

"In barlight, she looked alright,

In daylight, she looked desperate."

Hearing those lines made my face crack into a smile. Craig Finn's way with words is, dare I say, magical. I love the storytelling element to the songs on "Stay Positive." They're deceptively simple, yet true. They're the sort of lyrics that make me think songwriting would be easy, when in fact it is extraordinarily difficult. (Witness any and all Filter albums.)

"Stay Positive" is a fine rock record. By extrapolation, I have to assume that The Hold Steady is a fine rock band. I'm afraid, though, that it isn't quite as fine a band as overzealous Hold Steady fans would have me believe. They've made the band out to be something more than it is. The music on "Stay Positive" isn't groundbreaking stuff. It's very good stuff, but it isn't going to make anyone sit up and say "This is like nothing I've ever heard before."

THE PORTABLE PAUL SHIRLEY


Paul's basketball adventures are now in paperback.

It would be interesting to find out what The Hold Steady's members think of their band. It would take a perfect world, truth serum, and David Letterman to get it out of them, but I have a feeling they might agree with my take on the indie community's perception of them. I don't perceive The Hold Steady to be an overconfident group; I would think -- if asked (and while under sedation) -- they would probably say they're a little surprised by the enthusiasm their recordings inspire. I can almost visualize the events that occurred when, for example, they were told they were Blender magazine's Band of the Year in 2006. When I think of it, I imagine lots of "Seriously, dude?"s and "Get the hell out of here, man"s.

I could be wrong, and probably I am. But for my sake, I'll continue to think of The Hold Steady as a hard-working Midwestern band that is in a little over its head. I'll do that because it makes me like them more.

If I were a true music critic, this would be the time would I would belch forth a rating for "Stay Positive." Thankfully, I'm not a true music critic, so I don't have to do that. Some might view my refusal to throw around numbers or grades as a cop-out, but I choose to take the Nick Hornby road. Hornby once wrote, in "The Polysyllabic Spree," which takes off from his columns on books for a magazine called The Believer, that the spirit of that magazine's work was to never come down too hard on works of art. Who was he to say, for example, that a writer's years of work were wasted because he, Nick Hornby, didn't like the main character. (I'm paraphrasing; those aren't his exact words.)

It sounds sappy, but I agree with Hornby's take on the subject. Assigning a number to "Stay Positive" seems trite. My thoughts on the record are complicated and nuanced, which is why it took several hundred words to express them. Your thoughts will be similarly complicated and, possibly, totally unrelated to mine, because you probably know your tastes way better than I do.

In that spirit, I'll say this: "Stay Positive" is a fun listen. Don't expect it to change your life. But if you like meaningful lyrics and accessible sounds, you'll enjoy it.

The end.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. He can be found at myspace.com/paulshirley and at mysocalledcareer@gmail.com. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is now available in paperback -- can be found here. With his brother, he co-hosts an online radio show, "Off Topic with Matt and Paul Shirley."

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