By Dylan Neely
Where to begin with this fucking band? First rock group on the cover of The Village Voice in god knows how many years, Rolling Stone declared them the hottest band in America or something, and the members project a unique mix of friendliness and creepiness… their lyrics flip between being some of the most prosodic and nuanced takes on the old fall-back themes of rock 'n roll—you know, drugs, sex, fucked up kids, and they love talking about themselves, too—and eye-roll-inducing bland and usually chauvinistic truisms we all hoped were left behind in the 70s (see the chorus on one of the tracks on this live album that has yet to get a studio treatment: “Guys go for looks / Girls go for status.” Y'all can do better than that – I know because Separation Sunday is my go-to depressed middle-of-the-night album after White Light/White Heat and your whole second album is a lyrical gem as good a good chunk of the literary references you love dropping). Craig Finn, their lead singer, and Tad Kubler, lead guitar, are the core of the brilliant 90s post-punk band Lifter Puller, but they moved to Brooklyn some years ago and unabashedly started a rock 'n roll band, and, judging by their quick rise to success, it seems that there are a lot of people out there who still like rock 'n roll.
Now, Craig Finn just loves playing to the crowd—he hops around, makes excruciated faces and syncopates his delivery and generally tries to keep a crowd that's listened to their studio albums a million times guessing—and it works well enough when you see them live, especially after you have a few drinks in you. Frankly, though, it's fucking annoying on a live album. His female vocal impersonations and droll between-song commentary are fine on first listen, I guess, but this is not an album that will have the staying appeal of The Hold Steady Almost Killed Me, Separation Sunday or even Stay Positive. (As an aside, Boys and Girls in America gets old pretty fast, too, but not as fast as this album).
So A Positive Rage is good for a couple listens – if you haven't seen the band live, it's nice to hear that they're actually quite sincere and willing to engage with the audience in a way that a lot of bands that have reached their size aren't. Also, there are three new tracks that aren't on their four studio albums: “Girls Like Status” – catchy, but probably, lyrically, the worst song they've ever done. “You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came With)” is forgettable and sounds like too much bad late-70s rock, but “Ask her for Aderrall” is absolutely fantastic – it's funny, clever, and I think it it nails the reasons that people listen to this band. A Positive Rage was recorded Halloween 2007, which is ironic in itself because Craig Finn got fired from his record company job in 2003 for releasing a live Halloween album of another Brooklyn stalwart… somehow I get the feeling that this record is a much surer bet commercially.
The Hold Steady's entire shtick is mythologizing the people that listen to rock and hardcore music – suburban kids, speed addicts, stoners, college students… and, theoretically, those people are right there listening to the band and cheering for themselves at The Metro in Chicago. Recording with a real audience should give us the opportunity to feel like the band is playing right to us, but it fails in that regard. In a way, it sort of reveals the whole charade of playing 70s-fueled rock in 2009 and trying to run a middle ground between the garage-rock ethos that spawned punk and a rock 'n roll style more along of the lines of egoistic stadium rock. But I think the trick to listening to this band is appreciating their witty, clever cynicism for what it is and, in the next moment, grabbing uncynically to their most sincere gems like “Stay Positive”:
Well The Youth Of Today / And the early 7 Seconds / Taught me some of life's most valuable lessons / There's gonna come a time / When the scene'll seem less sunny/It'll probably get druggy / And the kids will seem too skinny / . . . / The kids at the shows / They'll have kids of their own / And our sing-along songs will be their scriptures.
They did the post-punk wearily cynical thing already back in Minneapolis and they did it great, but hey, even if life is that bleakly depressing, shouldn't music, at least, be able to cheer us up sometimes?