The Hold Steady "Stay Positive" (Vagrant)

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The Hold Steady is back with its fourth album, and that means another visit to America's psychic outskirts. Like a Northern counterpart to the Drive-By Truckers (whose Patterson Hood guests on the album), the Brooklyn band has made a mission of depicting the disenfranchised -- small-town kids and small-time drifters who float around the margins, spooked by all the dead ends and tipping into desperation and violence.

Their adventures are played out in bars and against the Dumpsters out back, in clearings in the woods and, this time, in the courtroom. Blood and death figure strongly, raising the stakes and adding an ominous undercurrent.

Lyricist Craig Finn tells his stories with a lean, literary touch, suggesting much with few words. "We didn't go back to her place, we went to some place where she cat-sits," he sings in his wary drawl in "Sequestered in Memphis." What comes through strongest is a fierce sympathy for the characters. He appreciates the beauty of their passion and senses their desire to "be something bigger."

Like Finn, 36, some of these people are facing the new uncertainties of middle adulthood, and with that thematic expansion comes a wider range of colors and textures in the music. The sound is more varied and lighter on its feet with touches of harpsichord and banjo but anchored by the Hold Steady's signature: thick, humid arena rock, a high-pressure system of cresting guitars and pianos that injects these dramas with tension and embraces all their contradictions and ambiguities.

These protagonists might be damaged, but they have a crazy determination to transcend. Sometimes they find faith in religion, sometimes in visions, and not least in music: Hard rock bathes the kids' rituals as it pours through rolled-down car windows. A song is hummed against a girl's lips.

In the moral void, music is really the one guidepost.

"Our psalms are singalong songs," Finn sings in the opening number, "Constructive Summer," and it's an idea that bears repeating. "The singalong songs will be our scriptures," he proclaims later in the album, even as the music his band is making drives that point home.

--Richard Cromelin

Getting that human feeling

Randy Travis "Around the Bend" (Warner Bros.)

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Ever since Randy Travis came onto the country scene in the 1980s, he's shown a remarkable ability to latch onto sterling material, but too often there's been something wooden in the rigid way he sang. Now 49, Travis sounds positively human in his first straight country album in eight years (in stores today).

Apparently he found something vivifying in the belly of the gospel music he immersed himself in for his last several outings.

His oaky baritone remains a rich sonic force, but now he's figured out how to bring spontaneous emotion through lively swoops and dives as he negotiates melodies, adding a few twists and turns to what the writers gave him to work with.

As Waylon Jennings famously said about Porter Wagoner, Travis is a country traditionalist who couldn't go pop with a mouthful of firecrack- ers.

The songs reflect that, hewing to timeless themes of loss (the single "Dig Two Graves"), sin ("You Didn't Have a Good Time," the more lighthearted "Every Head Bowed") and redemption (the title track, "Turn It Around").

Some songs still leave you wishing to hear what George Jones or John Anderson might have done with them, but a quarter-century down the line, Travis finally seems comfortable inhabiting his human skin.

--Randy Lewis