I had to get these out of the way.
The Hold Steady - Stay Positive
I get the complaints that these guys haven't "evolved" much, but with their triumphant Pitchfork Music Festival performance still ringing in my ears and head, it's hard to begrudge this move towards positivity, and, yes, the key is the title; you can practically hear Craig Finn grinding his teeth into a smile, even on numbers as bleak as "One for the Cutters." Neither as well-observed nor consistent as the now-maligned Boys and Girls in America, this one flows like a failed attempt at The Cars' Heartbeat City, in which three or four theoretical hit singles compete with really interesting filler -- bejeweled with harpsichords, talk boxes, and Night Ranger guitar solos -- for your celebrated summer's earhole. As with the Cars album, the singles are the simplest and hence best numbers. But theoretical hits they'll remain, and that's where my cavils interfere with my enjoyment; you'd be forgiven for thinking that Stay Positive is an instant Top Ten and MTV consolidation like Heartbeat City. Finn and co. try so hard to stay positive that the album tracks designed to give context and heft to "Sequestered in Memphis," "Yeah Sapphire," and the title track carve a distance that Finn's never-more-committed performance can't cross. Recounting hard-luck tales for non-members of A.A. (figuratively, that is) takes a charisma quite beyond what this band is capable of, especially when they were more convincing writing from the scene instead of about it.
Robert Forster - The Evangelist
I haven't said much about this record because I'm wary of accusations of favoritism; and, really, if you don't care by now there's no way I can convince you. But as a Go-Betweens fan who thought the frontman with the dolorous talk-singing and cramped melodic sensibility only made one very good solo album (back in 1991), I was ready to show mercy anyway in the wake of Forster's personal loss. How condescending. Despite a couple of blank spots, this is a damn fine record, written, sung, and played by an adult, and I can't stress that point enough. Forster's not American, but an article like this advances the wrong idea about "literateness" in rock music. Every song, failures included, is well-observed and taut. Forster has not only adapted his demotic singer-songwriter-isms to three-dimensional production -- his voice and guitar, wry and colorful, remind us that he's alive and committed to this world. As the author of "Darlinghurst Nights" and "Born to a Family" has shown, he's absorbed the late Grant McLennan's tuneful generosity so that The Evangelist's numbers about him aren't so much elegies as full collaborations, credits be damned. This album is neither a funeral nor a wake -- it's a conversation in a bar between friends.