Music Review: The Hold Steady – Thrashing Thru the Passion

          After a couple rough albums without their trademark keyboardist, The Hold Steady are back in the swing of things with Thrashing Thru the Passion, a reminder of everything we loved about the band plus some places where they’ve room to grow. Long-time fans praise The Hold Steady’s hard rock guitar and nasally yet vaguely Wilde-ian lyrics by singer Craig Finn. Thrashing has those benchmarks as well as a more upbeat tone that gives things an occasional sock hop vibe. Maybe the less dirge-like, solipsistic ballads are a symptom of Trump’s America, where suddenly getting drunk and strung out in a bar seems like a fine solution rather than a reason for introspection. Regardless of the reason behind the band’s push toward positivity, the lighter tone feels mostly appropriate as contrast to all the darkness in the world.

          It’s been eleven years since The Hold Steady told us to “Stay Positive” in the album of the same name, but this might be their first album that actually sounds cheery. Thrashing lacks the invocation to change your mood and change the world. Instead it’s a bit of an ephemeral distraction to help you keep your mind off the long drive ahead. Of course, Finn can’t help but give us a couple of lyrical gems along the way, but few are as powerful or potent as the freewheeling Ulysses-esque ramblings of Separation Sunday. The overall album lacks the dynamism and myriad viewpoints found in Boys and Girls in America. This feels like the band as a whole, rather than just Finn, suggesting a modern mentality to get us through the rough times without necessarily demanding our adherence to it. It’s the vibe of a barroom band who’s glad you’re here but won’t demand that you listen or sing along. If you do decide to put in the effort, you’ll be rewarded.

          There are moments of classic Craig Finn cleverness. “Wherever he goes he always orders the usual / He likes to see what they’ll bring him.” That’s such a pure setup in “Denver Haircut” it could segue right into some stand-up. Track two, “Epaulets,” is so jaunty it might have bop-bopped right off the Grease soundtrack. Track three, “You Did Good Kid” fills that “Stay Positive” invocation hole, but is intended to be reassuring rather than persuasive. The “Joke About Jamaica” style thrumming in the background reminds us that reassurance comes after trauma, but the chanting of the band lets us know we’re not alone.

Other tracks aren’t quite as memorable but contain key phrases so cool you cut the band slack. “Traditional Village” is a great notion, as is “Entitlement Crew,” even if the songs that go with them sound a little bit like knock-offs. “Blackout Sam” isn’t quite the soul-crushing waltz found in previous albums, but it ends with the cute couplet, “Local legends with the faraway eyes / I wanna make you feel protected and high.” “T-Shirt Tux” begins with some killer lyrics then meanders. Its manic-depressive melody gets a little Reel Big Fish at times. “Star 18” is a much better track that walks the tightrope between darkness and light, though its guitar solo is like waiting for a kitten to roar. It’s a bummer considering the way the lyrics flow and fit together like Almost Killed Me or Lifter Puller. “The Stove & The Toaster” feels like a swing at Boys and Girls in America style but lacks originality like the other weaker tracks.

Thrashing Thru the Passion rounds out with a very interesting track called “Confusion in the Marketplace” which sounds a bit like a song that would play over the credits in an 80’s movie. It feels so conclusive and correct that it makes the rest of the album feel more substantial than it is. It’s a testament to how much song placement can affect an album’s vibe. If “Confusion” were track one, you might think you were in for The Hold Steady’s greatest, most operatic triumph, but instead we’re left with the implication that the band’s greatest days may be ahead of them yet. Not a bad feeling, but bittersweet given how long we’ve been waiting for that sweet fleeting feeling to return.

Grown Men Discuss Children’s Toys!

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My friend “Big Trav” and I have started a gaming podcast called “The Entitled Gamer.” Please give it a listen, subscribe on iTunes and leave us a positive review.

We have some fun episodes available already, including an interview with some sexy cosplayers, and an episode featuring the best video game music of all time.

In other news, Spellbound Sword has nearly reached 100,000 reads! Even though it’s only a rough draft, my family-friendly fantasy adventure about a boy and his magic sword has reached a worldwide audience, and new fans discover it every day.

I am currently working on building the second draft of the book, as well as plotting potential sequels. The game plan is to query publishers and lit agents once the book is in professional enough condition. Check out the free version now while you still can!

Movie Review: Hereafter

Hereafter is clearly an interesting choice for Clint Eastwood. It’s a supernatural drama, which isn’t exactly the genre you’d expect from the dude who brought us a decade’s worth of dour dramas grounded in reality. It’s kind of fun to see Eastwood stretch as a director to fit a more conventional genre of cinema. At times it really works for him. The opening sequence of the film – a terrifying tidal wave decimating a scenic beach-side market – is an excellent example of the skillful camerawork Eastwood is capable of. The sequence is momentarily muddled by shoddy water effects – no doubt a constraint of the film’s seemingly meager budget – but otherwise the directorial style gives the audience an effective first-hand glance at what it’s like to be swept down stream and nearly drowned by crushing water. It is effective in the same vein as a good chase scene in Jurassic Park: “Must go faster! Must go faster!” We’re along with the characters for the ride so it’s easy to get swept away in the action.

The main flaw of Hereafter is that there is so little action otherwise. We begin with three characters in different stages of life at different locations around the world. It should be no surprise to the average film-goer that these three individual narratives will no doubt intertwine at some point through a catastrophic or serendipitous and ultimately life-changing series of events. The problem is that the average film-goer is baited for so long that by the time the three narratives converge the event is greeted with the guttural grunt, “Finally!” This is not to say that the individual plot-lines and performances are uninteresting. Quite the contrary, they are very engaging and watchable for the most part, assuming you like slow-moving dour dramas. Those hoping for new insight into the afterlife can check their hopes at the door. This movie is about the characters, solely.

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Matt Damon’s love-interest in a sequence with a much-needed burst of sweetness that ultimately fades too soon. In fact, one might go so far as to say that between the three narratives – a young British boy who loses his twin brother in a fatal car crash, a French female news anchor trying to rekindle feelings with the preternatural after a near death experience, and Matt Damon as a petulant working class American psychic – Damon’s is the one that sticks out like a sore thumb for inappropriate inclusion. The other stories are distinctly European, work perfectly in coincidence of tone, and it is clear that inspiration from French filmmakers guide Eastwood’s hand as he shoots several sequences. Damon’s character quests for love, but every time he touches a woman’s skin, he connects with a bad memory from their past or a dead relative trying to make contact. Bryce Dallas Howard plays sweet and bats her eyelashes, clearly down to ride the Sarah Silverman express-line into Matt Damon’s bedroom. Damon meets her in a cooking class, and they immediately hit it off with lots of tasting, chopping and sexual tension. She exists solely as a character to express Damon’s inability to find love and inadequacies when it comes to intimacy, not to mention the fact that his psychic ghost-powers have great power and great responsibility. We spend so much time with Bryce, as well as with Damon’s shyster brother (a hungry Jay Mohr) that it almost seems completely arbitrary when Damon finally catches a flight to Europe and incidentally runs into the other two plotlines at the World Book Fair – probably the lamest third act set piece in film history.

There’s one really great moment where Jay Mohr finds out that his ghastly brother Matt Damon has flown to Europe through a letter. Mohr looks at the letter, then stares off at nothing and shouts angrily with all the fervor of a Home Alone actor who just realized that he left Kevin at home. This is incredibly funny, albeit not intentionally. This is one of the film’s few moments of humor. Once Damon actually meets the little boy that lost his twin brother, there are some great moments of acting as Damon acts like a hilarious jerk to a tiny emotionless child. It’s too little too late, but I will say this for Hereafter: it’s incredibly well-shot, well-acted and dementedly slow-paced. If you can put up with the unforgiving slowness, you’ll be able to enjoy the moments that follow, but for the most part this is one to catch on HBO.