By September 2006 The Hold Steady had already released Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday, two of the finest rock and roll records of the millennium, and were poised to release Boys and Girls in America, just at the very point that the wider world was starting to take notice of them. Having already established themselves as narrative-heavy rockers, they had hit upon a formula where they channelled the twin guitar attack of thin Lizzy, with the grounded swagger of The Replacements and topped it off with some very Springsteen-esque storytelling. Sure, they sounded like a glorified bar band, but they were the greatest bar band and they had a whole lot of life experience to share and stories to tell.
Boys and Girls in America opens with a sort of effects-laden chugging guitar which causes the heart to sink the first time you hear it, because it sounds for all the world like it could be the start of a U2 number. When a Coldplay style descending piano feature joins the guitar chug, that sinking feeling intensifies. However, any similarities to the two biggest bands on the planet are subsequently blown away as the rest of the band kick-in and the sound of a pumped-up and focused Hold Steady is unleashed. As an opening statement of intent, “Stuck Between Stations” is a brilliant way of kicking off an album, with guitar slinger Tad Kubler on blistering form, throwing out raw and bloody riffs and Craig Finn chewing and spitting out lines of a compelling narrative. For many unbelievers, its Finn’s vocals which can put them off the music of The Hold Steady, however if he had a more technically proficient voice, he’d sound a lot less believable and therefore his lyrics would not carry anywhere near as much impact. As it is, Finn’s half garbled / half sung delivery lends a certain air of authenticity to proceedings, and even when he slows it down for the languid paced numbers, he often delivers the lyrics in a tuneful slur, leading the listener to invest heavily in the intertwining stories of Hollie, Gideon and Charlemagne.
As Boys and Girls in America progresses, it reveals itself to be the most approachable Hold Steady album to date, finding a happy medium somewhere between the raucous, chorus-heavy, bar band rocking of Almost Killed Me, the denser narratives of Separation Sunday, and a vague sheen of production polish than they hadn’t utilised previously. A major factor in the band sounding considerably more sophisticated than previously is the input of piano player Franz Nicolay, whose ambitious arrangements took The Hold Steady beyond their standard bar band boogie, although the increased recording budget also resulted in a more accessible sound. Songs like “Chips Ahoy” and “You Can Make Them Like You” are packed with pathos, guitars and big choruses, as well as the inescapable feeling that The Hold Steady are hell-bent on keeping the rock and roll flame alive, regardless of how much it has guttered down the decades.
What Boys and Girls in America confirms above everything is what a truly great rock band The Hold Steady were at the time. Sloppy enough to sound authentic, yet skilful enough not to sound incompetent and above all else, possessing of a rare honesty, The Hold Steady sounded like a band of experienced hands that had graduated from their garage to dive bars years, if not decades, ago, and had steadily been gathering anecdotes and life experience ever since. For all their religious imagery, heavy narratives, cultural references to rock and roll and cumulative miles on the clock, The Hold Steady sound genuine, particularly over their first three albums, resulting in Boys and Girls in America being something of an apex of this early phase of their career.
Despite being a decade old, Boys and Girls in America is an album which has aged well. The rockers rock, with “Hot Soft Light” and “Massive Nights” being among their most pleasingly accessible tunes, while the more reserved material like “First Night”, and in particular the heart breaking “Citrus”, being heart-string tuggers of the highest order. The album closes with the two punch of “Chillout Tent”, featuring a duet between two special guests Elizabeth Elmore and Dave Pirner, and “Southtown Girls” which once again proves that when it came to memorable closing tracks, The Hold Steady rarely failed to deliver.
Looking back, Boys and Girls in America represents the pinnacle of The Hold Steady’s career to date. It’s an album which sees them combine their narrative skills, bar band rocking, religious imagery, accessibility with a distinct hunger for success, allowing them to channel their heroes from classic rock while referencing their less mainstream influences. On paper it should have been a bloody mess, but somehow they created one of the most vibrant rock albums of the last decade.