Brooklyn's answer to the E Street Band is back for another round of indie anthems. But on the follow-up to 2006's critically dry-humped Boys and Girls in America, Craig Finn and company take a step back from the outright Springsteen-isms of that record (though lead single "Sequestered in Memphis" certainly pumps the horns and gang vocals to those same anthemic heights). On Stay Positive, their fifth record, the Hold Steady pushes out its boundaries without collapsing the overall formula completely. That is to say it's trying on different influences — Springsteen and the Replacements are still obvious touchstones, but there's more old-school punk-rock, and maybe even some Billy Joel in there.
I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Stay Positive is a better record than the rather one-note Boys and Girls. There's more nuance here, with different instrumentations and sparser arrangements scattered between the fist-pumpers; tracks like "One for the Cutters" and "Both Crosses" take on a darker tone than we've heard from the band thus far, and it suits them. Of course Finn is still a manic and unrepentant lyricist — how the man remembers all those words from night to night is beyond me — but even he shows some restraint this time out, particularly on the wistful "Yeah Sapphire," which favors stanzas over paragraphs. But back to the punk: It's called on often here, no more directly than in the title track, where Finn spits, The Youth of Today and the early 7 Seconds taught me some of life's most valuable lessons. One of those lessons might be "Don't forget your roots." Finn wears his like merit badges, much to our benefit.