THE HOLD STEADY "Boys and Girls in America" Vagrant THE BIG SLEEP "Son of the Tiger" French Kiss

Friday, November 24, 2006

WHAT'S THE BIGGEST difference between Bruce Springsteen and the Hold Steady?

The former isn't as stuck on sounding like Bruce Springsteen.

Since breaking through with "Born to Run" more than 30 years ago, Springsteen has varied his style many times. The Hold Steady, however, tinkers with its music only to sound even more like its model. Granted, "Boys and Girls in America" is only the New York sextet's third album. But singer-songwriter Craig Finn and his cohorts show no signs of sprinting beyond "Born to Run." The gruff vocals, epic piano counterpoint, blue-collar poesy and Roy Orbison-meets-the-Ronettes arrangements are all intensely familiar.

Finn's lyrics do have a few distinguishing features. He sings about booze and drugs more than the Boss ever did and employs his own cast of characters, notably a female alter ego called Holly who was introduced on last year's album, "Separation Sunday." ("Stuck Between Stations's" Sal Paradise, however, is copyright Jack Kerouac.) And the Steady has mastered the huge chorus, as demonstrated on the aptly titled "Massive Nights."

Before the band ever gets massive, though, it will first have to step out of a colossal shadow.

Named for a Raymond Chandler novel that became an iconic 1940s movie, the Big Sleep certainly isn't without precedent. Yet the New York trio has found a little place of its own by playing droney, muscular instrumental rock that periodically admits the human voice. Although not credited with vocals, bassist-keyboardist Sonya Balchandani sings on four of the 10 tracks on "Son of the Tiger," the band's first full-length release. That's enough to distinguish the threesome from all the other post-rock groups that went instrumental to distinguish themselves.

"Murder" is a good example. It begins as a galloping, sweeping fanfare that is undeniably powerful but could easily be Don Caballero, Darediablo or a dozen other such bands. But then Balchandani's cool voice enters, riding the storm and giving the piece focus. Her vocals don't dominate the album, and Danny Barria's guitar commands such tracks as the squalling "Locomotion."

Still, the Big Sleep's lack of instrumental-rock purism is a significant reason that "Son of the Tiger" is one of the most appealing examples of the genre.

-- Mark Jenkins

Appearing Saturday at the Black Cat with Statehood.

Listen to an audio clip of the Hold Steady

Listen to an audio clip of the Big Sleep

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