THE HOLD STEADY Boys and Girls in America (Vagrant) The members of Hold Steady, a young New York band with Minneapolis connections, have lofty ambitions - like the best rock and rollers, they hope to chronicle the lives of their own generation. Singer/songwriter Craig Finn sounds like a combination of Counting Crows' Adam Duritz and Thin Lizzy's late frontman Phil Lynott, with a sublime grasp of street cadence, vernacular and hipster cool. It's not just how he sings, however - it's what he sings that makes Boys and Girls in America one of the true finds of 2006. Not since Bruce Springsteen's first two albums have such shaggy-haired narratives and seedy but romantic characters been so masterfully presented: there's the girl in "Chips Ahoy" who can predict which horse will win at the track but is addicted to painkillers; Holly, from the gentle, swinging "First Night" who's "not invincible, in fact she's in the hospital," and her counterpart, Gideon, who's "got a pipe made from a Pringles can;" and the two screwed-up lovers in "Chillout Tent" who overdose at a rock festival and fall in love during their recovery backstage. Most significantly, there are the faceless boys and girls of the album's title who in the opening tour de force, "Stuck Between Stations," are described as "dependent, undisciplined, sleeping late." Finn's gift is that despite the dead end lives he portrays with chilling accuracy, he doesn't judge the actions of his directionless characters, whose primary activities are either getting high or the pursuit of the necessary ingredients. It's not a pretty picture, but the vignettes zoom in on American suburbia as insightfully as a PBS documentary. Of course, the lyrics would all just be short-story fodder if they weren't accompanied by bristling musical accompaniment that combines exuberant E-Street muscle and dramatic Roy Bittan-like piano fills, bass-driven rhythm and blues and scorching rhythm guitars, all wrapped down in a loose, indie sound. Boys and Girls in America, in short, heralds the arrival of one of the best young band in America. DAMIEN RICE 9 (Hed Artzi) An Irish folkie who sounds like he listened to punk rock growing up, Damien Rice is one of the brightest singer/songwriters on the horizon. His 2003 debut, O, set him apart from the James Blunt/David Gray folk and pop set, placing him instead in the Leonard Cohen/Jeff Buckley league of passionate poets. Frequently backed only by his acoustic guitar and strings, Rice walks a thin line between sappy and sensitive, but on 9, like on O, he manages to maintain his balance. His vocal counterpoint on O - Irish singer Lisa Hannigan - appears only on the harrowing opening track, "9 Crimes" and the closing hymn "Sleep Don't Weep." The rest of the album finds Rice branching out somewhat, with a full hard rock band on "Me, My Yoke and I," an epic Irish folkie ballad ("Coconut Skins") and the waltz-like "Grey Rooms." Which is all a good thing, because for all of Rice's talents and charms, his solo acoustic ballads tend to drag despite their ethereal beauty. As a mood album on a lazy, rainy morning, however, 9 will provide the perfect company. NEIL YOUNG & CRAZY HORSE Live at the Fillmore East 1970 (Hed Artzi) Neil Young has been dropping hints for years about releasing recordings of select live shows from his massive career-spanning archives. Live at the Fillmore East 1970 serves as an auspicious start. The show was recorded at a time when Young was juggling two jobs - as an integral member of supergroup Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, and as a solo artist fronting the looser, heavier garage rock sound of Crazy Horse. The concert took place just before the release of Young's heralded second album, Everybody Knows This is Nowhere. So it's natural that the song selections here focus on that album, with a spunky version of its title song setting the pace. The much maligned Crazy Horse rhythm section of Ralph Molina on drums and Billy Talbot on bass lumbers along but generally performs fine, while legendary producer and keyboardist Jack Nitzsche goes largely unnoticed on piano. Hippie jamming is the key on elongated versions of "Down By the River" and "Cowgirl in the Sand," with the jamming punctuated by interesting interplay between Young and second guitarist Danny Whitten (who was to die of a heroin overdose a year after the concert and become the subject of a later Young album, Tonight's The Night). But on this night, Whitten was right on the money, with his electrifying "Come on Baby Let's Go Downtown" serving as the album's standout. Buyer beware, however: the same version of that song is also available on Tonight's the Night, making Fillmore less of a must-have for Young fans than it otherwise would be. Still, the new album provides a snapshot of one of rock's greats at one of his earliest career peaks.