There are two New York bands on the cusp of greatness this fall, and isn’t it sweet that they should come not from the same hipster tribe but from opposite ends of the rock universe? One is a gregarious bar band that pilfers Born to Run–era Bruce and eighties hair metal, while the other is an art band as moody and introverted as Radiohead.
The barflies are the Hold Steady, no strangers to close readers of these pages. On the basis of their second album, Separation Sunday, the Minneapolis transplants were our magazine’s 2005 band of the year, and they have returned quickly and auspiciously with Boys and Girls in America, a tutorial on the visceral pleasures of rock. Guitarist Tad Kubler plays fat and crunchy power chords, while Craig Finn talk-sings sharply detailed yarns about messed-up kids. The first character we meet is “a really cool kisser but she wasn’t all that strict of a Christian,” and nearing the end of the record, we learn about two strangers who overdose at a rock festival, are revived by paramedics, and then get it on in the “chill-out tent.” Finn deadpans: “They started kissing when the nurses took off their IVs, it was kinda sexy but it was kinda creepy.”
Departing from the first two albums, Finn sounds less like a rogue poet commandeering a rock stage and more like a musician in total sync with his band. He’s gone so far as to write choruses that repeat, giving his songs an anthemic quality they didn’t have before. “If you’re trying to get people to understand what you’re saying, you got to give them a little sugar with the pills,” Finn explains. But not too much sugar: Despite the catchy choruses, Finn still doesn’t carry much of a tune.
Tunde Adebimpe of TV on the Radio, on the other hand, is all about carrying tunes. The obvious reference point here is Peter Gabriel, but Adebimpe has a richer and deeper baritone. TVOTR’s mesmerizingly melodic 2003 EP, Young Liars, led to huge expectations that until now the band has struggled to meet. Part of that is simply a matter of stylistic identity. They’re neither a guitar band nor an electronic band—their songs are a swirling, restless hybrid drawing from blues, doo-wop, and that downbeat genre called shoe-gaze. On Return to Cookie Mountain, the band offers almost no sugar with its pills. While TVOTR’s rhythmic power might lend itself to the dance floor (the single “Wolf Like Me” is strong evidence), they subvert that by rarely venturing beyond mid-tempo.
Nobody really has to choose between the Hold Steady and TVOTR, but let’s hold a friendly competition by comparing celebrity cameos. The Hold Steady feature the Winona-scarred Dave Pirner of Soul Asylum. TVOTR score David Bowie. Ordinarily, that’d be a rout, but Bowie is kinda buried on the excellent “Province.” So the nod goes to Pirner, who sings the part of the drug-addled seducer on “Chill-Out Tent” as if he’s actually been there and done that.
Boys and Girls in America, Vagrant Records; October 3.
Return to Cookie Mountain, Interscope; September 12.