Those looking for Separation Sunday "part two" may be disappointed by the huge sound Boys and Girls in America has (the band's moved to Vagrant); it's not much of a concept record, and it's not as Catholic, but all those struggles are in here just beneath the surface (and sometimes on top of it). One of the ballads here, "First Night," begins with a piano and an acoustic guitar lilting a rather loose melody that gives Craig Finn the support he needs to get out of his pent-up, novelistic, wordsmithing mouth. All of these characters are young, desperate, and fleeing from their inner fear, except for Holly who is wise enough to tell the protagonist that "words alone never could save us"....and then "cried when she told us about Jesus." The piano fills out that unfillable hole in Holly and the rest, no matter where they run. Finn can do nothing but repeat his lines and find a last verse somewhere to let the song just fade into silence, because it never really ends. Boys and Girls in America is a sophisticated shambles. There's still a barely-on-the-rail feel, despite the literate compositions. Finn's always either behind or ahead of the beat, but it's alright, his bandmates can more than handle that because they're as engaged as he is. There are a few guests, and even a horn section on one track, and the classic girl group chorus call and response from Dana Kletter and her gorgeous voice. There's real sadness in the Wall of Sound and chanted chorus in "You Can Make Him Like You," which examines everything from addiction to betrayal, to the insecurity in love that can push someone over the edge, never to return. Thin Lizzy makes a return on "Massive Nights," complete with roiling bass as Finn opens the whole escapist mix, swinging and setting up a hedonist's dream: "The guys were feeling good about their liquor run..." There are low expectations and drama where only the music counts. The tune turns back on itself when the singer is trying to convince himself and the huge, wailing, responsorial chorus, that something so utterly suburban could be cool, until "She had the gun in her mouth/She was shooting up at her dreams/When the chaperone said that/We'd been crowned/the king and the queen." And it just ends. The chorus doesn't repeat. Elizabeth Elmore's and Dave Pirner's character triplet vocals on "Chillout Tent" help to create a sprawling narrative. Finn's the narrator, the other two are such broken and wasted -- even OD'ed -- people; they kiss urgently, which is alternately "sexy...but kinda creepy." The song doesn't really work, but it's brave as hell as an experiment. The reason this record is worth embracing, and even celebrating, is because it's an honest to God rock & roll album. It exposes in the first and third person what it means to grow up right now in the midst of suburban waste. It's angsty, but Finn's got a sense of humor, and the band can play their asses off. That they so readily embrace rock history as a means of unfolding Finn's stories suggests that "cool" and "indie" are simply terms in the larger dialogue. This is a smoking little record. Its focus is small, but reach is large; it's a winner.
Thom Jurek, Rovi