The Hold Steady – A Positive Rage

April 23, 2009

At every successful Hold Steady show, it’s obvious for a fleeting instant that being lead singer Craig Finn and sweating beer into your shirt every night for an enraptured crowd is the only job worth having in the world. Anything else—professor, housewife, Supreme Court justice—is just a way to afford more Hold Steady shows. It’s a humbling second, but Finn will still hang out and sing to you about his alternative Minneapolis where anyone who isn’t scoring drugs is jonesing for them.

There’s no way that A Positive Rage, the live album accompanying a largely unmemorable DVD documentary of the same name, could capture that weird, humiliating moment. And if you’re one of the unlucky many who hate Finn’s voice, which alternates between sounding hoarse and sounding like he’s trying to catch a slippery piece of phlegm, Rage won’t change your mind. But if you’re thrilled by the idea of a version of “Barfruit Blues” where Finn tries to sing like a woman, the album delivers.

For Hold Steady fans, the CD is a good introduction to rarer songs dedicated listeners could miss. For example, there’s a pounding rendition of “Ask Her for Adderall,” a bonus track from the band’s most recent studio album, Stay Positive. It is one of the few songs where Finn and company take their parallel Twin Cities and seem to be saying: “We’re almost forty, what are we doing singing about teenagers all the time?”  They aren’t afraid to go back in their discography for deep cuts either; “You Gotta Dance (With Who You Came to Dance With)” comes from the Australian version of their 2004 debut and should sound new to even their most hardcore fans.

Other moments, quickly forgotten in a concert, come out uncomfortable on tape. Stuttering out the last words to “Girls Like Status” must have seemed inspired to Finn at the time, but now it’s just an annoying tic. And things that are absolutely true when the concert is happening—Finn saying “There’s so much joy in what we do up here”—seem canned nearly two years after the concert was recorded. But for someone in thrall to the band and its aesthetic, stage banter like “You are, we all are … the Hold Steady” will always sound timely.

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