Sam's Town, Boys and Girls in America

The Killers and The Hold Steady

Phases & Stages

The Killers

Sam's Town (Island)

The Hold Steady

Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant)

As Bruce Springsteen explores the gospel-folk of idol Woody Guthrie, a clutch of younger artists have instigated a free-for-all to be king of the grandiose, all-American rock hill. The two obvious front-runners are Vegas upstarts the Killers and Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis sluggers the Hold Steady. Burying the shimmering synth-pop of 2004's rousing multiplatinum debut, Hot Fuss, under a Born to Run-like wall of sound, the Killers assume the role of statement-making crusaders ("I woke on the roadside, in the land of the free ride"), while the Hold Steady prefer hacking it out in the barroom trenches of the Boss' "Jungleland." If neither band registers a definitive Born in the U.S.A. blockbuster, neither do they limp back to Asbury Park in defeat. The Killers overextend themselves grabbing for the heartland's heartstrings, which works great on song-length bursts like "When You Were Young" and "This River Is Wild," but it takes more than sprouting beards to inherit Springsteen's natural-born gravitas. Hold Steady frontman Craig Finn, conversely, has the poetic lovable-loser act down cold, but is too distracted by the ever-present "Party Pit" and "Southtown Girls" to expand his vision beyond the club parking lot. For the moment, Bruuuuuuce can breathe easy, but only just.

(both) ***

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