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Some attempts to expand the musical palette aren't too appealing, suggesting the forced experimentation that bands engage in as they get deeper into their careers. The Cars-like keyboard on "Navy Sheets" and excessive use of talk box (is there any other kind?) on "Joke About Jamaica" are particular offenders. But the banjo-driven, Southern Gothic-tinged "Both Crosses" is one of the Hold Steady's most mysterious songs and proves the band can succeed not just at breakneck speed.
It all comes back to Finn, though, and he provides another tour de force focusing on shady characters seeking salvation. "In bar light/She looked all right/In daylight/She looked desperate," from "Sequestered in Memphis," may be the quintessential Finn lyric. Not only is it a perfect microcosm of the kind of protagonist he often celebrates, but the clever rhyme scheme and subtle alliteration show an attention to detail that few other lyricists bother with.
The Hold Steady will perform at the 9:30 club with the Loved Ones on Aug. 14.
-- David Malitz
DOWNLOAD THESE:"Sequestered in Memphis," "Constructive Summer," "Yeah Sapphire"
If the Goo Goo Dolls ever decided to form a band with Vertical Horizon and some of the less essential members of Phish, it would probably sound a lot like O.A.R. Long beloved by college students, Hacky Sack players and casual pot smokers, O.A.R. is a jam band for people who don't like jam bands. In other words, most people.
The band's latest is hook-happy and melodically concise, so much so that its lack of jam-band sprawl seems like a statement of purpose. Or at least an attempt to get played on the radio: O.A.R., which initially hailed from Rockville, is in the awkward position of being successful without being famous, selling out Madison Square Garden this year without the benefit of a defining hit single or a frontman with even the limited charisma of Dave Matthews.
"All Sides" isn't O.A.R.'s first bid for mainstream stardom, but it may be the band's best. This is an amiable effort that can't seem to decide whether to emphasize its relative radio-friendliness or its extended artistic reach, and winds up splitting the difference. There are Middle Eastern rhythms ("Whatever Happened"), up-tempo, horn-centric pop tracks ("Something Coming Over"), modified reggae ("What Is Mine"), songs about the troops ("War Song," which doesn't pander) and songs about the fans ("This Town," which does).
It's little wonder the band's been having trouble with radio programmers, though. O.A.R.'s idea of a pop hook has a distinctly first-Clinton-administration feel, as if it were fixed during the heyday of Toad the Wet Sprocket, one of the many faceless, gently rocking '90s bands with whom this one has too much in common.
O.A.R. is scheduled to perform at Merriweather Post Pavilion with the Beautiful Girls on July 26.
-- Allison Stewart
DOWNLOAD THESE:"Shattered," "Whatever Happened"