Analysis of Boys and Girls in America

by Jonathan Hust

With the release of Boys and Girls in America, Craig Finn, talk-singing front man of The Hold Steady, unveils the latest chapter in his ongoing story of drugs and redemption. This release, the band’s first for Vagrant records, finds the New York rockers picking up right where they left off with 2005’s Separation Sunday, both musically and lyrically.

“The references between The Hold Steady’s albums are not limited to a recurring cast of characters; there are also references to specific lines.”

Boys and Girls opens with “Stuck Between Stations,” a well-crafted and ideal first track that sets the bar very high for the remainder of the album. This song highlights the band’s willingness to offer more than just a loud, relentless rock sound. Their flexibility is especially evident when the band falls out at the 2:37 mark and keyboardist Franz Nicolay takes the lead. Nicolay’s short piano interlude is quickly engulfed by the band’s crashing re-entry at 2:55.


“Stuck Between Stations”
beginning


“Stuck Between Stations”
“flexibility”

On the second track, “Chips Ahoy!”, the organ provides a nice contrast in sound to the bright piano heard throughout most of the album. In the second verse, the guitar lines pan back and forth between the right and left speakers, allowing the stereo guitar parts to sound much larger. This tactic can be heard in Ted Kubler’s guitar work throughout much of the band’s catalogue. For another example of the effect of panning, listen to the opening vocals on Separation Sunday.



from “Chips Ahoy!”:
The two-note electric guitar pulse
should switch between your left and right
speakers or ear pieces.

“Hot Soft Light,” track three, is a bouncy number that offers a great illustration of Finn’s unique lyrical swagger. The songwriting is sharp and witty, continually transitioning between humorous and weighty with relative ease.

We started recreational
It ended kinda medical
It came on hot and soft and then it tightened up its tentacles
The band played “Screaming for Vengeance”
and we agreed this world is mostly manacled
It started ice cream social nice
It ended up all white and ecumenical


from “Hot Soft Light”

“Screaming for Vengeance” is a Judas Priest song; Finn refers to a line in that song’s chorus, “The world is a manacled place.” Finn often makes references to other bands and authors in his lyrics. The first line (and title) of the album refers to a line spoken by Jack Kerouac’s narrator and protagonist Sal Paradise in Part One, Chapter 9 of On the Road:

Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together; sophistication demands that they submit to sex immediately without proper preliminary talk. Not courting talk—real straight talk about souls, for life is holy and every moment is precious.

Many of Finn’s songs capture his ability to write complex lyrics, especially when we look at the lyrics in the context of Finn’s interconnected and ongoing story. This lyrical concept continues to work for Finn because he seems committed to telling the story straight, narrating both the highs and lows in the lives of a cast of regular characters that were all introduced on The Hold Steady’s debut album Almost Killed Me. (Holly and Halleluiah first appeared in “Barfruit Blues”; Charlemagne in “Hostile, Mass.” and “Killer Parties”; and Gideon in “Sweet Payne.”) In “How a Resurrection Really Feels,” from 2005’s Separation Sunday, Finn unveils for the first time that Holly and Halleluiah are the same character. The character of Charlemagne is likely a reference to a character from Steely Dan’s “Kid Charlemagne,” whom Finn effeminates and uses to represent the character of a drug dealer in his writing.

“Finn approaches topics like drugs and religion in a way that does not seem to defend or condemn either of them….”

The references between The Hold Steady’s albums are not limited to a recurring cast of characters; there are also references to specific lines. In “Cattle and the Creeping Things,” Finn sings, “Silly rabbit, tripping is for teenagers, murder is for murderers, and hard drugs are for bartenders / I’m pretty sure I mentioned that before.” This is a pretty comical reference to “Certain Songs” on Almost Killed Me, where Finn had previously sung “The hard drugs are for bartenders and the kitchen workers and the bartender’s friends.”

Finn approaches topics like drugs and religion in a way that does not seem to defend or condemn either of them, which I find especially interesting. He captures the party atmosphere that a drug-saturated environment can bring and he suggests that a drug scene can be just as ugly, dark, and scary as it can be fun. “Massive Nights,” which I consider one of the catchiest songs on Boys and Girls, finds Finn admitting this mid-chorus:

We had some massive nights
We had some crushing lows
We had some lusty little crushes
We had those all ages hardcore matinee shows

Immediately following “Massive Nights” is the acoustic number “Citrus.” These two songs mark the biggest contrast in sound between consecutive songs on the album. The sparse musical arrangement in “Citrus” highlights Finn’s songwriting. In “Citrus” (similar to “Crucifixion Cruise” on Separation Sunday), the band takes a back seat and allows the quiet ballad to stand out more from the other songs on the album. Finn saves what I feel are some of his most beautifully written lyrics for this understated track. The song begins with Finn singing to his drink ingredients:

Hey citrus
Hey liquor
I love it when you touch each other
Hey whiskey
Hey ginger
I come to you with rigid fingers

Later, Finn delivers some of the most emotional lyrics on the album:

I feel Jesus in the tenderness of honest, nervous lovers
I feel Judas in the pistols and the pagers that come with all the powders
Lost in fog and love and faithless fear,
I’ve had kisses that make Judas seem sincere


from “Citrus”

The biblical references here are no surprise, as there are religious undertones and themes in a handful of Finn’s songs, especially those involving Holly. Holly, sometimes called Halleluiah, seems to have escaped the grasp of drug addiction at least partly through religious faith. (In “Crucifixion Cruise,” Finn sings, “[Halleluiah] climbed the cross and found she liked the view.”) In the first verse of “First Night,” Finn jumps backward in the story to a medical incident involving Holly/Halleluiah:  “Holly’s not invincible; in fact, she’s in the hospital not far from that bar where we met on that first night.”  Later in the song, Finn describes Holly/Halleluiah after her religious discoveries:

And then last night, she said words alone never could save us
And then last night, she cried when she told us about Jesus

While I think Finn’s lyrical abilities make The Hold Steady especially interesting and unique, his co-musicians certainly deserve proper credit. The Hold Steady are a solid, polished high-energy rock band. I don’t find it at all surprising that they’ve been called “America’s best bar band.”* In the opening track of their debut album, Finn sings, “I got bored when I didn’t have a band, so I started a band. We’re gonna start it with a positive jam; hold steady.” Should Finn and company continue holding steady on their current course of creative output, they may leave that title in the rearview mirror.

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TRACK LISTING

  1. Stuck Between Stations (4:10)
  2. Chips Ahoy! (3:09)
  3. Hot Soft Light (3:53)
  4. Same Kooks (2:47)
  5. First Night (4:54)
  6. Party Pit (3:56)
  7. You Can Make Him Like You (2:48)
  8. Massive Nights (2:54)
  9. Citrus (2:44)
  10. Chillout Tent (3:42)
  11. Southtown Girls (5:10


right to left:
Tad Kubler, Franz Nicolay, Craig Finn,
Galen Polivka and Bobby Drake

CREDITS

Musicians
Craig Finn—vocals, guitar
Tad Kubler—lead guitar
Franz Nicolay—keyboards, accordion, and harmonica
Galen Polivka—bass guitar
Bobby Drake—drums
Dave Pirner—vocals
Dana Kletter—vocals
Drew Glackin—lap steel guitar
Alan Ferber—trombone
Caleb Burhans—viola
Peter Hess—sax (tenor), horn arrangements
Jean Cook—violin
Lloyd Debonis—trumpet

Producer/Engineer
John Agnello
TJ Doherty

Mastering
Greg Calbi
Steve Fallone

Mixing
Ted Young
Chris DeCoco

Label
Vagrant Records

 

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1 Comment »

Comment by Marco Esquandolas
2012-04-02 01:08:01

Fantastic article. Boys and Girls… is one of my favorite albums by one of my favorite bands. I love that you explored the amazing canon that Finn has crafted with self-referential lyrics, reoccurring characters, and discography-spanning storytelling. They are really a band like no other and I really enjoyed your analysis of Finn’s mythology. Have you checked out Clear Eyes, Full Heart yet?

 
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