Part of the Hold Steady's genius is that vocalist Craig Finn chooses to tell his street poetry with a close approximation of the Silver Bullet Band; in other words, they craft short, sordid stories that you can drink to. But you can tell that the band is reaching for the stars on their third album: the populist title, the move to a larger label and, most important, the ambitious production (courtesy of John Agnello). The Hold Steady take their beloved bar-band formula and amp it up with glistening keyboards, dramatic stops and starts, and rousing backing vocals. Such ambition doesn't dull Finn's storytelling; he's still chronicling kids "lost in fog and love and faithless fear," as he sings on "Citrus." But while last year's Separation Sunday followed Holly, Charlemagne and Gideon through sin, regret and reconciliation, Boys and Girls is more diffuse and varied (though the three principals reappear in the piano ballad "First Night"). The narrative may be fuzzy and the overall message is less heavy-handed, but the hooks are transcendent and the singer is magnetic. What else do you want from a bar band?
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