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DS Album Review: The Hold Steady – “The Price Of Progress”

There exists a small handful of bands that I feel like, in some ways, I’ve grown up alongside. I feel like if you’re an active music listener, once you get to about your mid-twenties, you reach a point where the current bands that you’re listening to have transitioned from being bands of your parents’ generation […]



Band photo: Shervin Lainez

There exists a small handful of bands that I feel like, in some ways, I’ve grown up alongside. I feel like if you’re an active music listener, once you get to about your mid-twenties, you reach a point where the current bands that you’re listening to have transitioned from being bands of your parents’ generation (or at least your cool uncle’s generation, although my parents were and are pretty cool so I’m lucky that way) to bands that are in that sort of in-between-but-still-older generation to, finally, bands that are basically your peers. People who are right in your same age bracket and same general socioeconomic bracket and with whom you shared a series of experiences, both personally and culturally, even if you never met and instead lived hundreds or thousands of miles apart. As a result, they resonate with you on a level that is just different and more personal than the music of your formative years. They become “your” bands, and you continue to grow and change and amass shared life experiences and go through different phases arm-in-arm (and maybe if you’re lucky you get to meet them along the way and share actual experiences that only serve to confirm their place in your life). So if you’ve read anything that I’ve written over the last dozen years here at Dying Scene, you’re probably aware that The Loved Ones/Dave Hause and Gaslight Anthem/Brian Fallon and Lucero/Ben Nichols comprise probably 3/4ths of my own personal Mt. Rushmore. The fourth and final spot undoubtedly belongs to The Hold Steady.

In many ways, The Hold Steady itself has grown up quite considerably along the way. In a literal sense, they’ve gone from a four-piece to a five-piece to a differently-assembled five-piece to a six-piece to a six-piece that sometimes has horns. Musically, the band has long-since moved on from being simply “America’s best bar band” to a band that has continued to level-up musically and push the sonic boundaries of what it means to be The Hold Steady. That is never more evident than on The Price Of Progress, the newest of the band’s nine studio full-lengths.

Due out today (happy new release day!), The Price Of Progress is a bit of a journey. I was lucky enough to receive a press copy long enough in advance that I decided to give the album a full couple of listens and then put it aside for a while and then revisit it before it came time to write the actual review. I’m glad I did, because The Price Of Progress is a bit of a journey. In many ways, it may be the “least Hold Steadyish” album of the nine in their ouevre. Few and far-between are the drunken, sweaty burners and the cathartic, sing-along-in-exultation choruses and the ripping guitar solos or even the extended keyboard jams. Those first couple of listens a few months ago left me with the vague impression that “well…that’s different.” And yet, in the time that’s ensued, I can’t help but shake the feeling that, in a lot of ways, maybe this is their “most Hold Steadyish” album to date. Let’s get into the weeds.

Were I to pick one word to best describe The Price Of Progress, that word would have to be ‘theatrical,’ and I mean that in the literal sense of the word in that the bulk of the album’s ten tracks create the impression that you’re watching a play unfold before you. Ten sets of different characters performing in front of a studio audience, all narrated at side-stage by frontman Craig Finn’s trademark sprechgesang vocal stylings. “Grand Junction” gets the festivities underway and the atypical time signature (6/8? I think? I’m not good at musical theory but I think it’s 6/8 and I asked my brother and he’s a music teacher and he said yes so we’ll go with that) is an immediate signal that we’re not in Kansas (or Brooklyn…or Minneapolis) anymore, Toto. Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge trade off some nifty guitar work in the bridge that’s as close as we’re getting to a solo. “Sideways Skull” comes next, and was an early single for a reason as it is probably the most “Hold Steady song on the record. It feels like it could be set in a universe that’s a continuation of Open Door Policy‘s “Family Farm.” There are big, swirling guitar sounds and a big, cathartic build-up with plenty of oozin’ aahs. Lyrically, it’s filled with the dark humor and oddly specific references (“the jacket held together by the rock band patches”) that somehow make the imagery instantly relatable, as does the referential nod to the home state shared by both THS multi-instrumental wizard Franz Nicolay and I. “Carlos Is Crying” has a super fun swing in the verse, complete with a spanky guitar groove and some layered harmonica and keys (from Nicolay, no doubt) providing the texture. Wonder if the dickhead in Denver is the same fella that cut his hair in the airport bathroom back on Thrashing Thru The Passion?

Understudies” is a real unique and interesting song. There’s a slow-build organ-centered intro that provides the backbone until the Bobby Drake’s drums kick in about a minute later, then there’s a super theatrical Galen Polivka bass groove laid down over some dramatic strings. Lyrically it’s layer upon layer of metaphor and it’s tough to tell if you should take the story literally or figuratively or if it even matters which one you choose. “Sixers” is one of my favorites. There are a couple of big pseudo-starts that hint at a musical direction before the real mood is revealed as a mid-tempo rock song. There’s no real chorus per se, but there is at least what seems like a standard structure, but then we get to an interlude that just kind of takes over. It’s one of the REAL theatrical vignettes, and it’s followed by “The Birdwatchers,” a song that caught me off guard at first but has become a very strong favorite. There’s a real interesting musical bed/intro, and it like “Sixers,” it plays as a theatrical vignette. There are horns, but they largely serve as texture and not a lead instrument, though they do devolve into a bit of a free-jazz sound at times. There are also bells and chimes, and the curtain just kinda ends on the song and the story, the latter of which is also riddled with metaphor and double meaning.

“City At Eleven” has no real chorus. It may be the most “Craig Finn-ish” song on The Price Of Progress. “Perdido” which translates to “lost” and which has an almost hypnotic guitar melody, a evokes a sort of slowed-down version of the Ella Fitzgerald/Duke Ellington standard with which it shares a name. “Distortions Of Faith” is a smoky, blues waltz number. The guitars are drenched in reverb and the song has a long, descending outro. “Flyover Halftime” brings our procession to a close with what is maybe the second “Hold Steadiest” song on the album. The guitars growl but they don’t overpower. We’ve got a hornets reference! And we’ve also got a fan on the field…

Because of its focus on scope and texture and scenery rather than catchiness or bombast or catharsis, The Price Of Progress is more of a grower than a shower, but it’s also the kind of album, that once it does grow, it takes over and becomes probably The Hold Steady’s most instantly re-listenable album since at least Teeth Dreams (I know the fanboys will be in a tizzy over that statement, but that’s a great rock and roll album and you know it).

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