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10 Years Ago: The Hold Steady Explode on the Scene With ‘Boys and Girls in America’

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When Jon Landau saw Bruce Springsteen in 1974, he wrote that he had seen “rock and roll future” in the singer, who “made me feel like I was hearing music for the very first time.” Like Springsteen in the ’70s, the Hold Steady made a generation of indie kids feel like they were reborn when they first heard Boys and Girls In America.

Released Oct. 3, 2006, the Brooklyn band’s third album turned them into darlings of the indie rock world. Pitchfork placed the disc at No. 64 in their list of the Top 200 Albums of the 2000s. Magnet and the A.V. Club picked it as the Best Album of 2006. The Guardian gave it five out of five stars, saying, “Finn’s lyrics, combining precise observation with poetic sensibility — he is an astonishing writer — would mean less without the power of the band behind him.”

A lot of the praise centered on frontman’s Craig Finn’s ability to use Springsteen-like storytelling and instrumentation to tell tales of modern skater kids, hood rats and druggies. Boys and Girls in America sounded like a punk rock take on Darkness on the Edge of Town — there’s a piano break in opening track “Stuck Between Stations” so reminiscent of E Streeter Roy Bittan that for a moment the song could be a Boss outtake.

Finn acknowledged the similarities even while pushing back against them when I talked to him a few weeks after the album came out.

“Obviously that classic bar-rock thing is something we go for, and Springsteen has done it very well,” Finn said. “But I hate to make such a one-to-one comparison because a lot has happened musically since the E Street Band made those records 30 years ago.”

He was right, a lot had happened. And nearly every trend in straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll was absorbed by the Hold Steady to make Boys and Girls in America. Obviously alternative icons such as the Clash, the Replacements, and Uncle Tupelo pop up in the sound. But so do mainstream ’70s bands — Kiss and Cheap Trick fans found plenty to dig on the LP.

“I think the [Springsteen] comparison ends with the guitars,” guitarist Tad Kubler said to me shortly after the album’s release. “I’m trying to come from a more Led Zeppelin, Thin Lizzy place.”

The first half of the ’00s had been dominated by aloof, New York City-centric rock. Bands such as the Strokes and Interpol captured headlines for being ultra-cool and singing with an ironic detachment and sarcastic sneer. Boys and Girls in America stomped on that hipster attitude with smart stories and tough-but-traditional rock riffs. Springsteen and Thin Lizzy don’t do ironic; they do sincere and loud.

Early adopters of the album championed this hybrid style and its rejection of the strutting, preening soundtrack of New York. Pitchfork critic Scott Plagenhoef captured the record’s vibe, writing, “Radio and video are, for the most part, unkind to new rock bands not targeted at high-schoolers– the Hold Steady craft classic rock-indebted music that would sound better sandwiched between Born to Run and Back in Black than Illinois and Tigermilk. In other words, the more likely you are to use music as a social lubricant than as a social balm, the more likely you are to enjoy the Hold Steady.”

The album gave the Hold Steady a massive cult following, but it didn’t turn them into stars. Finn believed that their less-commercial sound may have proved difficult in turning their critical acclaim into massive sales.

“I tend to think that we’re a little more abrasive than most of the stuff I hear on rock radio, like, say, the Killers,” he added. “At the same time, I was pretty surprised to hear Modest Mouse go platinum.”

Still, for a moment, it seemed as if the band would become huge, and the Hold Steady became the first band in 15 years to make the cover of the Village Voice. The Boys and Girls in America tour unfolded with a feel of you-gotta-see-this-band-before-they-are-huge. Finn told me ahead of one sold-out Boston show at the time that he felt the tide turning.

“We keep playing bigger and bigger and bigger venues,” he said. “Sometimes you just can’t tell.”

But for the band, it still represented a watershed moment — selling 100,000 physical copies isn’t something most rock bands can do these days. And thankfully, a cult can keep a career alive for a long time.

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