The Hold SteadyStay Positive(Vagrant) *7.5*
Goes well with: Drinking, smoking, sing-along songs
The Hold Steady's mouthful-of-marbles singer/songwriter Craig Finn begins Stay Positive by laying out the following lyrical welcome mat: “Me and my friends are like the drums on ‘Lust for Life' / We pound it out on floor toms; our psalms are sing-along songs.” These opening lines, coupled with guitarist Tad Kubler's explosive power chords, kick-start the album with a true fist-pumper (“Constructive Summer”) that speaks of “drinking with friends on top of water towers” while paying homage to “St. Joe Strummer.”It's a hard act to follow. The second track (“Sequestered in Memphis”) is probably the most traditional Hold Steady song on an album that frequently attempts to redraw the band's sonic boundary lines. Songs like “One for the Cutters,” “Lord I'm Discouraged” and “Both Crosses” venture into much more experimental and subdued rock territory, while the synth-driven “Navy Sheets” recalls the sound of Finn and Kubler's former band, Lifter Puller.The disc reaches its lowest point midway through, but a strong opening and solid ending (including the closer “Slapped Actress,” which is arguably the band's darkest song to date) save Stay Positive from the weaker filler in between. Hopefully, the band will tread carefully with the experimentation and understand that their greatest strength is straight-forward rock. After all, New Coke never beat old Coke in the taste tests.—Dryw KeltzThe Hold Steady plays Friday, Aug. 1, at The Casbah.
Amos Lee Last Days At The Lodge(Blue Note)7.1
Goes well with: Patrick Park, Ben Harper, Ray Lamontagne
Amos Lee's previous efforts (notably “Arms of a Woman,” from his 2005 self-titled debut) featured soulfully seductive acoustic fare ideal for spending a rainy night in the bedroom. But he dives into darker territory on Last Days. The spiritual core of Last Days lies in “Street Corner Preacher,” a rousing track about an ex-con looking for redemption, but the primary theme is deception on songs about cheating (“Better Days”) and getting cheated (“What's Been Going On” and “Truth”). “Better Days” has the same romantic tone as “Arms of a Woman” but trades sensuality for heartache on the chorus (“When the lights go out / All that I can think about / Is how we've seen better days”). It's the sound of sweet love turning bitter as Lee focuses on the emotions that drive people apart rather than bring them together. The album isn't all heartache and confusion, but Last Days does represent a significant mood swing from Lee's past efforts. It's also proof that the Philly crooner can do more with his songs than just help guys like me get laid. —Eddie Shoebang Amos Lee plays Thursday, Sept. 4, at the Belly Up.
Solomon BurkeLike a Fire(Shout Factory)*8.0*
Goes well with: Otis Redding, Al Green, O.V. Wright
Solomon Burke doesn't really need to put out another record. After all, counting live albums, the legendary singer (and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer) already has 34 releases to his credit. But this one is different because it's not just Burke on the record. It's also artists like Eric Clapton, Keb' Mo' and Ben Harper penning a collection of songs with Burke in mind. On the title track, Clapton delivers an acoustic-driven opener while Keb' Mo' offers laidback R&B on “We Don't Need It,” a song focused on vocals and lyrical content (in this case, a story about a father telling his family he lost his job and the family rallying behind him). The album veers off the R&B tracks onto a gravel road of soulful country with Jesse Harris (the songwriter behind Norah Jones' “Don't Know Why”) and “What Makes Me Think I was Right.” The entire album is a stunning showcase of Burke's vocal talent and the craftsmanship of the various songwriters. In that sense, Like a Fire is a love letter, both from the guest musicians to Burke and from Burke to his fans, including the new ones this record will garner. —Eddie Shoebang