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The Hold Steady:: Boys and Girls in America (Album Review)

Following up a critically acclaimed, career-defining concept album is easier said than done. Unless you happen to be Craig Finn, that is.

Barely 18 months after the Minneapolis-born singer-guitarist and his Brooklyn bar band The Hold Steady released their staggering sophomore disc Separation Sunday — our favourite CD of 2005 by a mile — Finn and co. are back with another stunner. And if it doesn’t quite reach the same lofty heights as its predecessor, that’s only because it doesn’t really try.

For Boys and Girls in America, Finn discards the full-length narrative approach of Separation Sunday in favour of a looser theme based on a line from Kerouac’s On the Road: “Boys and girls in America have such a sad time together.” But never mind that. It’s really just a bunch of songs about Finn’s usual topics: Suburban kids, shady lowlifes, drugs and booze, young lust and hanging out on the banks of the Mississippi River.

But what a set of songs: Chips Ahoy! is a love story starring a druggie girl with a winning touch at the horse track; the theatrical duet Chillout Tent recreates a romantic interlude between two overdosed teens at a rock fest (the boy is voiced by Soul Asylum’s Dave Pirner); You Can Make Him Like You offers cynical relationship tips for shallow girls; Citrus is a bare-bones acoustic ballad. First Night reunites us with Separation Sunday’s Holly and Charlemagne.

Finn hasn’t tempered his musical ambitions, either. His ’70s guitar-rock epics still channel Springsteen’s Jungleland grandeur, Thin Lizzy’s harmonized boogie-rock and Jim Steinman’s musical melodrama. He’s still one of the sharpest lyricists in rock.

This album’s bon mots include: “I’ve had kisses that made Judas seem sincere,” “How am I supposed to know if you’re high when you won’t even dance?” and “Southtown girls won’t blow you away, but you know that they’ll stay.” And his distinctive delivery even manages to turn a line like, “Gonna walk around and drink some more” into an anthemic singalong.

Granted, his voice is still a dealbreaker — either you love his adenoidal machine-gun bark or you hate it. But even if you don’t enjoy the way he says things, you know he’s saying something. That’s why he’s one of the most exciting guys in indie-rock right now.

And why Boys and Girls in America is one of the year’s best albums. We’re already waiting for the followup.