Subtle and sincere

Forget the Killers, but Hold Steady
SONIC REDUCER Honestly, is sincerity back? And if not sincerity, then can we expect at least Bruce Springsteen, Thin Lizzy's Phil Lynott, and that word-drunk, narrative-schwinging, Dylan–damaged breed of songwriter that you associate with a kind of East Coasty, epic rust belt, bar-band earnestness that freedom-rocked our worlds in the early ’80s? I know Bob Seger is back — please don't make me listen to the new album.
You can be forgiven for assuming a J. Geils Band revival is schlumping right around the corner once you cock your vulnerable hearing aid to the Killers' new album, Sam's Town (Island). Am I the only one who thinks that someone at the label misread the memo and got the sponsor, whoops, the title wrong? "Sam's Club" rolls off the tongue much more naturally. I mean, it's pretty easy to read these songs — more Freddie Mercury and Bono than Bruce and John Cougar Mellencamp — as dispatches from some sorry rocker stuck deep in the aisles at a big-box discount retailer. "My List" — that's gotta be about forgetting what you went in there for. "Why Do I Keep Counting?" doubtless involves bulk purchases of those butter horn megapacks. "For Reasons Unknown": yeah, I also buy too much bargain toilet paper and then give half away to relatives — does anyone actually save money this way? "Bling (Confessions of a King)" — Sam's Club isn't just about pepperoni-pizza-flavored Combos, and hulking bottles of Motrin.
I don't care what the Killers kids think — as ambitious and against type as it plays, Sam's Town simply sucks. So I urge you, if you are truly in need of barfed-up visions of Dylan (and his more rocking imitators), to check out this year's underacknowledged Wooden Wand and the Vanishing Voice opus, Second Attention (Kill Rock Stars). There is such a thing as being too prolific. Mr. Wand makes so much music that this one was easy to skip.
Another band of would-be rock gods from the all-boy school of Les Paul essentialism is the Hold Steady. Call me a girl, but I never got their shtick and just assumed they were snarky, annoyingly sarcastic smart-asses with prep-school blazers who were made to listen to too much anthem rock at an impressionable age. That is, until I actually saw them at CBGB's during last year's CMJ Music Marathon, playing their hearts out, looking like insurance adjusters taking their favorite Cheap Trick fast songs out for a spin.
Yup, it was one of those moments that make you punch the air with your fist, yell like a middle schooler, and pour beer over the guitarist's Converse. Instantly, you reverted to the brain-dead, raving, ravaged die-hard rock ’n' roll fan in full ear-bleed death roll — all you needed was a stingray to whip around and pierce you in the aorta so you could die happily, destroyed by the wilderness you'd always deep-down loved. Like an extremely famous TV crocodile hunter.
That performance — and maybe even the Hold Steady's new Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant) — may be all that it takes to fluff your flaccid affection for stale Bruce Hornsby–style piano lines. Thus it was heartening to hear HS vocalist Craig Finn sounding so, er, out of it in the touring vehicle last week, stuck in traffic outside Atlanta. "Hopefully, I write about the highs and the hangovers," he drawled. One KISS anecdote later and he was gone. Next up: Tad Kubler, who writes the band's music.
Kubler assured me that HS have suffered — suffered Guided by Voices comparisons, thanks to the amount of spilled beer that drenches their stages. "Getting hurt onstage is definitely kind of a drag," he offered. "I almost knocked myself out in Bowling Green, Ohio. Jumping over a railing, I caught my head on monitors that I didn't see over the stage.

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