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.

Read “Scavengers”, My Second Novel!


But Matt, I thought you just finished preliminary work on your first novel, “American Saviors.” How could you possibly have finished a second book already?

Well, that’s just the thing. I haven’t.

I’m going to put pieces of my second novel online as I finish them, inspired by Sally Slater, as well as the old serial style of novelization, that Dickensian piecemeal approach. This new one is a sci-fi horror tale, something that sprang to mind as a short story. Now it’s getting a bit longer. We’ll see how long it’ll be by the end of it! I’m inspired by the Shining and Alien. It might be a whole different animal by the time I’m done with it, but I’m interested in this experiment.

I’m going to post the sections I finish as I finish them, and people can read along as it goes. Based on how the first round of revisions went with my first book, there’s a good chance whole chunks could be amputated by the time the story’s done. Hopefully this will demystify the process a little bit, and show everyone the nitty gritty hard work as it’s actually approached. Take a gander over yonder, pilgrim:

For a synopsis, read the following:

Wiley and his son Yaw are scavengers, hopping from rock to rock mining what they may. When they stumble upon a rare bounty, it drives a wedge between them, each with a different prize in mind. Yaw dreams of escaping his father’s clutches, starting a life for himself elsewhere. And Wiley? Well, his predilections make him a tad more predictable in some ways and bit more erratic in others. Once the boys assemble a crew, they set out to claim their bounty but run into a little trouble along the way, a stowaway hellbent on making the voyage a one-way trip.

Movie Review: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World is a visual masterpiece, Edgar Wright’s finest cinematic showing in terms of special effects mastery, the integration of stylized comic-book tropes and the amazing impossibility of wrangling a monstrously talented cast that performs above and beyond the call of duty. Michael Cera’s Scott Pilgrim is a throwback to Arrested Development‘s George Michael, and while many would claim that he’s been rehashing that same generic melancholy youth for years now, Scott Pilgrim would change that impression, albeit subtly. There is a beautiful and charming way in which Cera commands the comedic punchline-heavy comic strip dialog in this picture, and his youthful innocence shines through in a way that it never could have in say, Nick & Nora’s Infamous Shamefest.  The rest of the cast is charismatic and crush-worthy, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Anna Kendrick, and Aubrey Plaza providing enough alternating attractiveness and affability to let the film’s weaker punchlines slide. Even supporting cast members like Scott’s band-mates find moments to stand out and make themselves memorable amidst all the comic book chaos, creating a universe that fans and newcomers alike can easily see themselves revisiting.

Knives Chau, played by Ellen Wong, has a lot of funny and cute moments, but they’re mostly relegated to the second half of the movie after Scott’s relationship with Ramona fires up and her seven evil exes come into play. The fights are energetic and enjoyable, mixing motifs from Street Fighter, Dance Dance Revolution and graphic novels to visually underscore the sheer awesomeness abounding in every frame.  Lovable is the key word I would use to describe this picture, and as someone who had never read a single Scott Pilgrim comic I was immediately won over to the characters, the brilliant interplay of dialog and the fun of watching absolutely ridiculous things appear on screen.  It’s a rare occurrence, and in the same way that the Wachowski Bros. packed Speed Racer with mind-bending visual concepts that were ahead of their time, Edgar Wright does them one better by packing his film with a story as interesting as the acid-trip cinematic effects that Wright packs into every sequence.

There’s so much humor here delivered at such a pace that there is little time for true romance, a slight downside.  I would have liked more moments where the jokes parted waves to allow for real romance. I understand Wright’s hesitance to slow down his comic book picture with schmaltz, but I believe he underestimates his own ability to capture the audience’s heart for a moment. Even a few brief non-quippy moments could have served the film well, possibly pushing it beyond “great movie” into “masterpiece” on the story level, as well as the visual one.  I don’t want to spoil too much by explaining how the romance plays out but everything structurally functions perfectly, aside from a few moments that run long.  (The cut of Scott Pilgrim I saw was like a delicious Dagwood sandwich with just a few too many pieces of pastrami.) Believe me, true believers, there’s plenty of ridiculous, explosive combat to be found here.  The only thing that’s missing is a little more authentic sweetness.

The one thing you cannot claim about Scott Pilgrim is that it is boring. There is almost too much happening, but in the exact opposite way of Revenge of the Fallen where all of it was bad. Because of the nature of tackling seven villains in a single movie, some of them fall by the wayside. The movie should have taken more liberties with the number of exes and cut them down to the few that matter, because I feel like some of the characters seemed a little corny and one-note. Again, this movie is unstoppably funny, but I’m nitpicking at details that really could have been tweaked to make it applicable for all ages. The visual style of Scott Pilgrim is easily a cutting-edge integration of story and effects that should be considered for practical application at the advent of new three-dimension home video technology, but it, like Speed Racer before it, is a little too frenetic to capture the minds and hearts of audiences beyond a certain age group. There is a generation gap between those who understand the Legend of Zelda sound effects in the background and those who just hear bleeps and bloops. The charm of Scott Pilgrim relies on your preconceived knowledge of geek and pop culture, and if you’re out of the loop, it makes few concessions to slow down or censor itself.

For all these reasons, I love Scott Pilgrim vs. the World and think it is Edgar Wright’s finest film amongst many fine ones. It is the next step in the evolution of a multi-talented director and the multi-teared layered casting of the modern comedy. Rather than powerhouse leads dominating every scene, a variety of actors are given the opportunities to showcase their finest skills at the benefit of everyone. I cannot wait to see this movie for the second time.