Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Heaven Is Whenever - The Hold Steady

One of the best bands to break out in the past decade is The Hold Steady. I first got acquainted with them on Boys & Girls In America, their third and seminal record. Apart from a heavily influenced E Street and classic & anthemic rock & roll sound, what I liked about the band was singer's Craig Finn's ability to put as many words as possible into one line, without making it sound too forceful or weird. Talk-singing was quite a common thing in the band's early repertoire. Young people, parties, drugs, redemption, sin, St. Paul and the Mississippi River are some of the stuff you'll come across a lot in many of their songs.

In an age where crappy pop/rock songs talking about BGR relationships and unrequited love dominate commercial radio, The Hold Steady take this delicate subject matter and turn it into something beautifully poetic and almost beatnik-like, and at the same time not too cliche to make us cringe our faces. I think the songwriting has always been the heart of this band's music and it's amazing how a guy like Finn (who looks like an IT tech) can infuse his Catholic values and experiences into it.

Their latest release, Heaven Is Whenever, is much tighter than 2008's Stay Positive. It's good to listen to an album where you don't have to skip any track. The songs are more catchy and accessible. One thing I noticed is the piano is less prominent here, due to the original keyboardist's departure from the band. But the chunky and fat guitar riffs present on songs like Rock Problems, Hurricane J, The Smidge are back and take center-stage. The album starts out uniquely mellow (Sweet Part Of The City), mid tempo with slide guitars and muddy vocals. It's amazing.

The centerpiece of the album is We Can Get Together, a ballad that's filled with references to songs I've not heard before. The angelic choir in the chorus serves to up the emotional density. Lyrics wise, this album is more mature than their previous stuff. It sounds like an older and wiser Finn imparting useful advice and life lessons to us listeners, like in Soft In The Center, one of my favorite songs so far this year:

"You can't get every girl. You'll get the ones you love the best. You won't get every girl. You'll love the ones you get the best"
I know what you're going through. I had to go through that too"

This fifth record is continuing proof that America's best bar band are also one of the most consistently good bands around today. If you haven't done so yet, do yourself a favor and get Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday. It's essential listening.