The Hold Steady's stellar sonic adventure

Stay Positive, plus CD releases by Ry Cooder and Keaton Simons

Stay Positive

THE HOLD STEADY

(Vagrant)

It's hard not to root for The Hold Steady. Especially if you're from Tampa and regularly frequent Ybor City. The intelligent booze-rockers may call Brooklyn home, but our famed entertainment district surfaces in so many of singer/songwriter Crag Finn's tunes — most notably the band's signature jam, "Killer Parties" — that it's like listening to one of our own. And then there are the joyous concerts The Hold Steady have thrown in Ybor, like the one in January at Czar Bar, which concluded with about 100 people joining the quintet on stage.

The band's latest and greatest album, Stay Positive — currently available on iTunes; CD drops July 15 — also includes a couple local references. "Don't tell 'em Ybor City almost killed us again," Finn sings on the closing track, "Slapped Actress," over a guitar-and-keyboard wall of sound straight from E Street. "Don't mention Tampa, they'll just know all the rest," Finn sings on another verse of the same brilliant song. It's a cinematic number inspired by the John Cassevetes flick Opening Night, which depicts a Broadway star on the verge of a nervous breakdown after witnessing the death of a fan. Finn documents desperation better than most.

But like the album name implies, Stay Positive also packs a message of hope. The title track is a fist-pumping tidal wave of classic-rock guitar and churchy organ that serves as a delectable homage to "sing-along songs." It's also, in part, a heartwarming love letter to The Hold Steady's highly devoted fanbase. "We couldn't have even done this if it wasn't for you," Finn intones.

He has an everyman voice buoyed by unbridled passion. For years, he's been knocked for his Springsteenian tendency to cram excessive words into each line, rendering some unintelligible to the untrained ear. But The Hold Steady's fourth record features Finn's finest (and most easily understood) singing to date.

Sonically, Stay Positive is the band's most adventurous. Big Man-style sax playing gooses the disc's first single, "Sequestered in Memphis;" theremin and banjo lace the bleak ballad "Both Crosses;" a harpsichord haunts the murder report "One for the Cutters." A massive guitar solo of arena-rock proportions can be found at the heart of the beautifully bluesy "Lord, I'm Discouraged," and a talk box juices the Zeppelin-quoting "Joke About Jamaica." All told, there's not a dud on the disc. 4.5 stars —Wade Tatangelo

I, Flathead

RY COODER

(Nonesuch)

Guitarist, singer, songwriter and musical vagabond Ry Cooder, 61, completes his "California trilogy" of concept albums with I, Flathead, which celebrates drag-racing culture of the early '60s and is more categorically American/rootsy than either Chavez Ravine (2005) or My Name Is Buddy. At its best, I, Flathead conjures up The Band with the loose-limbed rock 'n' roll of "Waitin' for Some Girl," "Pink-O Boogie," "Drive Like I Never Been Hurt" and "Ridin' With the Blues." Cooder's vocals — gruffed up and thickened over the years, and with a Dust Bowl Okie accent — call to mind a cross between Levon Helm and Kris Kristofferson. The disc also rummages through Bakersfield-style country, Tex-Mex, Western swing and swoony ballads, yielding an album with considerable period charm. Using a select group of favored musicians, Cooder disappears into the ensemble, rarely flashing his legendary guitar prowess. I, Flathead occasionally lapses into pretentiousness, especially with a handful of spoken-word sections ("Can I Smoke in Here") that come off as contrived and mute the overall momentum. The I, Flathead deluxe edition includes a 97-page novella about the car-racing exploits of a musician named Kash Buk and his alien friend whose whip can go a thousand miles an hour on the salt flats. 3.5 stars —Eric Snider

Can You Hear Me

KEATON SIMONS

(CBS Records)

Singer/songwriter/guitarist Simon's accessible brand of bluesy pop-rock merits immediate comparisons to John Mayer, and his full-length debut proves he's no less talented than his adult-alternative peer. Simons is, however, less slick. Tracks like "Without Your Skin," "Misfits" and the title cut reveal a more organic sound infused with soul, R&B and country; still, there's an undeniable radio-ready sheen to the catchy "Nobody Knows" and ballad "To Me," co-penned by hitmakers The Matrix. Vocally, Simon brings to mind Gavin DeGraw and John Hiatt, with Adam Levine's slightly nasal timbre. Simon fleshes out his melodies with impressive acoustic, electric and slide guitar work. 3 stars —Amanda Schurr

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