Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Album Review - The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever

This review is part of the "Over Flow" Review Series. For various reasons these past reviews were not published anywhere else. I am tagging them as "Overflow Reviews" and may add some extra information before or after if needed but will keep the ratings and reviews just as I originally wrote them. Enjoy:
The Hold Steady
Heaven is Whenever
*** out of *****

Growing up…it can be a bitch or a joy, an adventure or a struggle, but it’s always tough to do, even (especially?) if you are a rock and roll band.  In the past, The Hold Steady have elevated Solo cup partying to the holy stature it deserves, yet even Craig Finn and company need to move on eventually.  They started on that journey with their last album Stay Positive and continue it here on Heaven is Whenever with various degrees of success; basically they are still finding their footing.

Instead of blasting out of the gate with their patented rocking opener, the band throws a slide guitar ballad curve-ball with “Sweet Part Of The City” which remembers fonder past days with a wistful sigh.  Days gone by are the focus throughout, but the longing for them is slowly leaving Finn’s voice, and that in itself has changed.  Finn expands his vocal range, singing more on Heaven is Whenever then he ever has in the past.  One trend that the group continues is their love of massive disk closers with “A Slight Discomfort”.  The Hold Steady pile up rising strings, cricket noises and simple piano parts for over 7 minutes ending the disk as graciously as they opened it.

With the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay, the group sounds more streamlined; there is less of a focus on pianos and bombast, making the E-Street analogies harder to draw.  Stripped down with minimal frills (for them) and focusing on the meaty guitars have the group sounding tight as ever but some of the songs seem to be jogging in place instead of racing triumphantly to the dawn.

While Finn can weave a tale as well or better then anyone in rock today, he sounds a bit tired on “Soft In The Center” with the chorus of “You can’t get every girl/You’ll love the ones you get the best”.  He lets us know he’s gone through that too, but not with any conviction, advice or real desire.  The album doesn’t seem to have any standouts on the level of past winners from the group (all though “Our Whole Lives” comes pretty close), but even judging it on its own, the story teller narrating Heaven is Whenever seems to have grown weary.  Check out “Rock Problems” and “The Smidge” for the new age grumpy old man telling the kids to get off their internet and onto his lawn so he can sing to them proper.  Because of this the slower songs work better, such as “We Can Get Together” which seems heartfelt in its desire to well, get together, and spend some quality time listening to records with the one you love.

Is this the last call on that monster bar band that was The Hold Steady? Who knows but it will be very interesting as to what the next morning brings for this band.                

More thoughts and videos after the jump:

Ok I admit it I love The Hold Steady.  I think they are fantastic, and one of the top 3 American Bands out there giving it their all today.  This album just didn't grab me the way others had, I think it is good, but I think their other releases have been greatStay Positive was going to have to be a come down off of the almost perfect Boys and Girls in America, and I was prepared for that, seeing it as their transitional album, so I had high hopes for this release when it was announced. 

Seems they are still in transition, and losing Franz probably doesn't help matters.  Even though the piano is still present it is no where near as dominant, not necessarily a bad thing, and as I mentioned the band sounds fantastic... my disappointment I guess resides on Finn.  After hearing his lyrics color such amazing songs these seem to be lacking that special something...I am not sure, but a track like "Citrus" just knocks me over when I hear it, simple, poignant and unreal.  Nothing hear really grabs me by the cajones like that did or even a track like "Both Crosses" did off of Stay Positive.  

I chatted with Shane, who liked this album a bit better, and he made a good point in our email exchange, he said basically, "Whatever keeps them going creatively as a band" he is happy for, and I concur, I can not wait to see them in October...hopefully at some sneaky surprise show before then.  Anywhichwaybutloose, what did you think about it?  Here are some tunes:
"Sweet Part of the City":

An acoustic version of ""Hurricane J" (I like it better the the original)
and Live version of "Our Whole Lives"

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