Forget Dave Matthews Band and Phish -- if there’s a band out there that should be the apple of every college student’s eye, it’s the Hold Steady. If there was a way to package a Friday night with your best friends at the local bar and translate it into 40 minutes of music, it would be titled Boys and Girls in America. The most fun album of the year deserves your attention right this instant.
Their first on Vagrant Records, Boys and Girls picks up where the critically acclaimed Separation Sunday left off, only with a tightened approach. Craig Finn’s trademark vocals are more sung than talked this time around, which could turn off some fans of the album’s predecessor, but in fact complement the more straightforward nature of the songs themselves impeccably. There’s a fair amount of early Springsteen to be found as well: the style of the vocals, the driving piano and organ (check the solo in “Same Kooks!”), and the storytelling all compare well to those of Bruce’s. One lyrical standout takes place in the opener, “Stuck Between Stations,” a narrative of poet John Berryman and his demise through suicide: "There was that night where we thought John Berryman could fly / but he didn’t / so he died / She said ‘You’re pretty good with words / but words don’t save your life’ / and they didn’t / so he died." It’s creative (and occasionally hysterical) passages like these that give the album a truly refreshing feel.
However, all of this pales in comparison to how much of a rollicking good time Boys and Girls is. The characters detailed in the lyrics are always throwing a few back in an assortment of locations, and the music of the self-proclaimed “bar rock band” oozes charisma and energy, even when the group gets softer on tracks like “First Night,” “Citrus.” There’s some country elements (the fantastic closer “Southtown Girls”), but most stick to the tried-and-true formula of no-frills rock and roll. A few gigantic choruses are showcased in “Massive Nights” and “Chips Ahoy!,” and the punk rock feel to “You Can Make Him Like You” is extremely well-executed. It’s a rare occurrence when every single song on an album is fantastic, but it’s accomplished full circle on Boys and Girls.
To put things in perspective, I first listened to this album at ten o’clock at night and did not listen to anything else until midnight the following night. I fell asleep to it, woke up to it, rocked with it on the way to class, worked out to it, and then my roommate put on It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, resulting in a total of something around ten or eleven play-throughs -- straight. Albums like this one make you realize how lacking music is in the “fun” department. At a time when bands are consumed by concept albums and self-importance, the Hold Steady is a breath of fresh air and a pint of Guinness.