Monday, May 24, 2010

CD Review: The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever

The Hold Steady have probably meant as much to me as any band over the past few years. I was able to discover their past albums and celebrate the wonderful Stay Positive release. I have even been able to enjoy the pre-THS band Lifter Puller or LFTR PLLR if you're into that kinda scene. When I first started listening to a Big Sexy-fashioned "greatest hits" of this critically acclaimed band, I thought it was ok, but nothing ground breaking. But then I listened more and more. I heard Craig Finn's lyrics and started to dig the stories about all of his hoodrat friends that inhabited each nugget of song. There is so much passion. The beats are well matched for the emotion of each song.

I already loved The Hold Steady before Mrs. Sexy took me to see them in concert in Portland. The band that encouraged Craig to start The Hold Steady opened for them that night, The Drive-By Truckers. DBT is a southern rock band. I've never thought of the South when listening to The Hold Steady. The settings for their songs float around the country from St. Paul to Ybor City to Cheyenne to Sacramento. That concert was amazing. I'm not a big fan of the Truckers music, but the lead singer seemed like he had won a contest. He was so thrilled to be on the stage and that joy was contagious. When The Hold Steady took the stage, they not only rocked the house with all of my favorite songs, but Craig Finn was the best showman of all time. He's smiling, he'd dancing and best of all he adds to the songs by talking to the audience of mic to further the "telling of the story" feel for each of the songs. My second favorite concert ever. He ends all of his concerts talking about the joy this gives him and despite some of the pretty dour subject matter in the songs, he wants everyone to Stay Positive.

Wait, is that an opening for a top 5 list?

Top 5 concerts I've seen:

Green Day at Arco
THS at Crystal Ballroom in Portland
Foo Fighters at Memorial
Presidents of the USA at Boardwalk
Cake at The Empire
Toadies at Boardwalk

Ok, that's 6 and I'm sure I'm missing something too. These bands have so completely spoiled me for concerts. I now require the front man to be a charismatic show man. I don't even want to see bands in concert unless I believe they will entertain me beyond just awesome music. Sorry, The National, Kings of Leon, Radiohead and Modest Mouse. I won't miss an album out of any of them, but I'm not going to see any of them in concert. Unless someone gives me a ticket... I'm easy that way.

Sometimes, I tangent. I know it, you know it and the American people know it. (Who knows that reference?)

With all of that background, I bring you the very highly anticipated (by me!) release of Heaven is Whenever. After my first listen, I was kinda underwhelmed. Not quite disappointed, but immediately thought this is nowhere as good as Stay Positive and not in the same ballpark as Boys and Girls in America. I knew this was the first release since the departure of charismatic keyboardist Franz Nicolay. I thought maybe that was the missing ingredient.

I can't believe that I had forgotten my THS history. They are not a one or two listen band. You need to let the music wash over you a few times to really polish the enjoyment. Now that this disc has burned through my headphones up to 20 times and I made one significant adjustment to the playlist, I love it! The adjustment is my omission of the rocking song, Rock Problems. I've never disliked a song by The Hold Steady as much as this. My dislike is solely on a repetitive guitar riff that overshadows a pretty good little story and killer guitar section by Tad Kubler. But the repetitive riff seems almost cliched. It is track 4. It's in a position of the album to be a tempo setter, but it just made me angry. Once I started skipping that song, I started liking the album more and more.

My other major criticism of the album is the positioning of the first song, The Sweet Part of the City. It's not a bad song, but it really makes me think they hung out with The Drive-By Truckers too long. It is a bit of a ballad and it's really not all that bad of a song, but as an album opener, it really left me flat. I'm not sure who mixed this album, but that duty should be handled by anyone else next album.

There are many excellent songs in this too short, 10 song set. It only gets shorter when I need to delete one. The Weekenders is a follow up of perhaps my fave THS song of all time, Chips Ahoy. I'm happy to say The Weekenders is a great song as well. However, the best section of the album is a three song arc that starts with song 7 and my fave track for now Hurricane J. I love the line where he dumps his girl "You're a beautiful girl and a pretty good waitress, but Jessie I don't think I'm the guy."

This clip makes me smile...

As with all The Hold Steady albums, there are wonderful phrases and lines throughout every song. I hope Craig never runs out of material in his imagination regarding this crazy lot of people. Thinking about and singing along with these excellent lines gives me chills and joy.

Overall, I love Heaven is Whenever, but with the missteps I have pointed out, I can only give it 4 PBR's out of a round of 5.

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