The other week, my boss stood behind me and asked if I could spare the time to do a particular job “in between doing Maximum Volume and reading the football news”. I replied that I didn’t mind because I liked to do half an hour proper job stuff a day whether it was needed or not.
A couple of days ago we started experimenting with AI technology. In my searches you’ll find “write me an essay on the history of Stoke City FC” and “what can you tell me about maximumvolumemusic.com?” This was all for work research, you understand……
Anyway, there’s now another search. It says simply: “can you write me a music review on the Hold Steady”.
The Hold Steady are in my top five bands of all time. Their gig at Camden Electric Ballroom in 2019 is in my top ten best ever. Ask me to explain what they do, however, and I am fumbling like a 16 year old in the dark trying to get someone’s bra strap undone.
So over to ChatGPT. Their first paragraph was this: “The Hold Steady has been a staple in the indie rock scene since their debut album, “Almost Killed Me,” was released in 2004. With their unique blend of punk, classic rock, and literary lyrics, the band has gained a devoted fanbase and critical acclaim.”
Which brings us 19 years on and to album number nine. Even for the Hold Steady, the 10 songs on “The Price Of Progress” are varied. In fact, it might be their most varied record of all, certainly sonically.
Music reviews are a blag, basically (read the 250 words on this one so far!) and you reach for comparisons, things that sound a bit like other things, and the problem is, they don’t exist when it comes to THS.
I first came across them about 15 years back when I read some article about the bands that were the heirs to Springsteen. Never seen the likeness myself, except one: both are masters at parachuting you into a bit of the story and never giving it a beginning or an end. That’s what “Grand Junction” does. It’s rather understated and its classic Hold Steady. Not ostensibly catchy, not even a real song, just a bloke essentially reciting poetry over rock n roll and a bit that repeats itself (in this case “the size of the sky”) and in amongst it all – its somehow genius. Untouchable, unfathomable genius.
“Sideways Skull” is the copper bottomed shining highlight. A return to their first album, it namechecks Robert Plant, mentions Alice Cooper songs and there’s a solo that is pure Thin Lizzy. Honestly though, everywhere you look there’s some kind of gem here. “Carlos Is Crying” (“its discussion of Carlos’s sister’s boyfriend as a “dickhead” who “claimed he was a carpenter but no one ever saw him pound a nail” is classic Craig Finn) is most certainly one.
There’s always a feeling with Finn and the boys that we’re all on the joke. “How did this happen?” he muses, “we started as skaters”. That’s how he sees maturity, and we’re all along for the ride. That one is full of soul, the glorious “Understudies” is full of strings, and the way it makes heroes of the unnoticed is clear, and for a band that have a history of writing songs about odd, fleeting encounters “Sixers” is perfect. Both lyrically and musically a sort of updating of their classic “Your Little Hoodrat Friend”.
They’ve never written an album with as many twists and turns as this one. “Birdwatchers” is unsettling, and the piano in “City At 11” is magnificent. There’s a dose of funk, of soul and a real melting pot of sounds here.
“Perdido would probably be called post-punk if it was another band, but there’s a real darkness in the words: “depression makes this dance craze much more difficult”. Craig Finn has a solo career away from the band and “Distortions Of Faith” is the type of late night jazz club stuff he often does on those, while “Flyover Halftime” brings the energy back. The bass from Galen Polivka anchors it down, while Tad Kulber and Stevie Selvidge are as good a duo as there are on the guitar, anywhere.
It’d be tempting to think at this point that there isn’t anyone new to go in the cult of the Hold Steady, except the other week on Twitter, Ginger the frontman for another one of my top five bands, The Wildhearts, was asking for bands to listen to and wrote: “thanks to whoever suggested The Hold Steady. What a band.” We’ll get there, one by one, we’ll get there.
But back to ChatGPT. In the conclusion of the review I asked it to write, it put this: Overall, “Open Door Policy” is a strong addition to The Hold Steady’s discography. The band’s willingness to experiment while staying true to their roots is a testament to their artistry and commitment to their craft.” Now, “….Policy” might have been the album before this one, but the basic premise holds true for “The Price Of Progress” as well. This is The Hold Steady as you’ve never heard them before, but its also the Hold Steady sounding exactly like themselves.
Go on, figure that out.