No band in recent memory so deeply fuels the desire to construct musical cinema in the mind more than Brooklyn's the Hold Steady. The songs on the band's fourth album, "Stay Positive" - available now as an exclusive iTunes download and in stores July 15 with three bonus tracks - are like mini-movies just waiting to be cast.
Each of the group's street-corner symphonies is peopled with ne'er-do-wells and try-to-do-wells that singer-songwriter Craig Finn paints in strokes both relatively broad and minutely specific.
Take the good girl gone to seed in "One for the Cutters." She sneaks off to party with the townies while away at college and watches her life spiral out of control as she aids and abets a very bad boy. As a chilling harpsichord underscores her tale, emulating the all-too-familiar stomach trembles that accompany youthful risk-taking, Finn sings of dead-end kids partying in cars at the quarry, "windows wide open to let the hard rock in."
With her "sutures and bruises" and sunken eyes, the even more deeply misguided woman at the center of "Lord, I'm Discouraged" floats by as a vivid image in a downbeat waltz of blurry, rainy-day piano and prickly guitar heat.
Those two are joined by greasers, punks, junkies, and good Christians who make bad decisions. They seek self-medication, redemption, or at the very least, some kind of sign to stay positive. The band gives it to them with a rush of siren-like keys or a communal chant or careening rhythm.
And even though these are not new characters by any means, there is something legitimately life-size about them, as if the band was making a documentary.
Even more impressive, as Finn spins his yarns, he and his bandmates are mindful of the power these small narratives gain by hitching them to widescreen backdrops. Stadium-ready guitar riffs, resounding piano chords, punchy horns, and "whoa-oh-oh" group choruses are balanced by intimate acoustic passages in ways clearly inspired by forebears like Bruce Springsteen and Billy Joel.
Ultimately, "Stay Positive" achieves the admirable feat of being a record you can listen closely to or rock out to, equally adaptable to late-night wallowing and the party at the water tower. It's also peppered with inside references meant to delight the band's diehard fans - who call themselves the "unified scene." But what's ultimately so positive about the record is that you don't have to be a "scene"-ster to enjoy a good rock band doing much more than simply holding steady.