Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Gut Feeling: The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever

The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever
Vagrant, 2010

My love for the Hold Steady is pure and unflinching. If you ask me if there was one band, and only one band I could ever listen to every again, they would be in the top three. This is an absolute truth. I am not lying to you. I know people that hate this band and while I never cared much about religion, or hell, even people's political opinions, I will actively tell my friends that they are wrong and have something fucked up in their head if they don't like the Hold Steady. I will simply cease to understand them. I know this isn't right, I shouldn't do this as a rational human being, but I mean, seriously! How can you not love stadium anthems sung by a would-be bar band. And hell, if you can't get past the genre and want to say it's schlocky, how can one deny Craig Finn's unmatchable ability to spin a yarn about the druggy modern age and, occasionally, craft that yarn into a goddamned rock and roll quilt. Ok, that sounds pretty lame, maybe tapestry is a better analogy. The band's preceding four albums feel like acts in a play, each one building on the one that came before it. Separation Sunday is my clear favorite, but mostly because of my love for concept albums, nitrous oxide tank baptisms (I won't lie, I've been trying to get cavities for YEARS to no avail), sweet stuff stuffed into socks, and the Hold Steady at their absolute finest. So, imagine the elation that ran through little Ian's blood when he found out they were bringing back Separation Sunday producer Dean Baltulonis. However, this could not make up for the tragedy that will forever haunt Heaven is Whenever and what ultimately makes it the Hold Steady's least solid record to date: The lack of that goddamned mustacioed Franz Nicolay. It's not just about what he brought to the band not only as keyboardist and back-up vocalist, but what he brought in spirit, and I'm having a really hard time adapting to the new Hold Steady.

Now, you probably noticed that I avoided calling this a bad album. I did this because it's not a bad album. You know that I'm a Hold Steady obsessive, and that is probably making you think that my opinion is skewed in their favor, but honestly, I'm approaching this thing as objectively as possible. Ok, well, as objectively as I can when I'm talking about one of my favorite bands. One of those bands that has saved my life on more than one occasion. I'll preface the meat of this review by saying that in my list of the top 3 best shows I've ever attended, the Hold Steady takes up the number 1 and 2 slots. Once in December of 2006 at the Bottleneck, which was the most satisfying, unifying thing I've ever been a part of and the other in Austin in 2008 at the Mohawk (at :55 in that video, I am right behind that speaker and I am three feet in the air and screaming) in which I pushed past all the posers standing with their arms folded to find those 25 or 30 members of the unified scene up front, and while the posers flashed me dirty looks I almost stopped to ask why they weren't losing their shit like I was but I realized I couldn't, because goddamnit, I had to get right up in front of the ever dapper Franz, who was swilling a bottle of cheap red wine that night. Explaining my love for the Hold Steady is a hard thing to do. It's just something that's there, and it's something I'm evangelical about. Jenny converted when we started dating, and is now a true believer. When I watch the Hold Steady, it's like watching a sermon. When I listen to the Hold Steady, it's like listening to a sermon on tape.

Ok, now that that's out of the way, Heaven is Whenever isn't as good as I hoped it would be, but it's missing exactly what I expected it to be missing. The thing is, I can't fault Franz for leaving. He cited the band's dynamic never changing too much as a factor, and that's respectable, but please, Franz, if you ever stumble upon this on the internet, please know that I'm hoping for a tearful reunion and a comeback album. I miss your back-up vocals, I miss your swirling keyboard lines, and I miss the sense of unbridled joy that is absent from this album. Yet despite not being as satisfying as any of the Hold Steady's prior releases, it's one that still manages to hit me in the guts, albeit in a different way.

7/10 songs on this record are great. Out of those, maybe 4/10 are absolutely outstanding and the remaining 3 are awesome. I will now song-by-song this thing:

1.) “The Sweet Part of the City” - Anchored by a twangy little acoustic guitar line, not necessarily the kind of righteous jam I was expecting from the Hold Steady, but this establishes the record as something that takes my expectations and puts them outside. It closes with the line “We were bored so we started a band/We like to play for you,” which officially makes this the Hold Steady's equivalent to GBV's “A Salty Salute.”

2.) “Soft in the Center” - This one has a bit of an identity crisis. It flips between upbeat power chords that sound EXACTLY like some other Hold Steady song (I think it's “Chip's Ahoy”), and since that chord riff starts the song off, I'm predisposed to think it's a bit of a toss off. And it kind of is. I like a lot of Finn's lines in this song, but they just don't feel too natural. It sounds like he's writing for an arena full of thousands of people rather than the kids huddled around the stereo in their living room (see: “We Can Get Together,” which is the perfect song for kids sitting around stereos) or the barflies. The guitar solo is massive, but it just feels like Tad Kubler is compensating for the lack of the Franz, and that's not a bad thing. He tries REALLY hard to compensate, and he's an excellent guitarist but goddamnit, you just can't replace the stache! I do love the sentiment of the girls you get being the “ones you love the best,” though. But that's because I'm sap.

3.) “The Weekenders” - The most righteous jam on this album, and one that's going to end up on a Hold Steady Best Of someday. It's probably the best song on the record, the one that lives up to the quality we've come to expect from Finn and the boys, and it also pushes the sound forward by combining the down-tempo sad loser vibe they've been perfecting on the slower songs for the last three albums and hitting with a fucking gut-punch of a chorus that sends everything into extra innings. And though the line“the theme of this party's the industrial age/ You came in dressed like a trainwreck” feels like it might have been a bit too constructed to be a great line, it's a fucking great line. Thematically, this one might be the best song about having someone you occasionally hook up with and the complications that ensue. “It's not gonna be like a romantic comedy/ In the end I bet no one learns a lesson,” sings Finn. He's right about that one. I also read that this is a sequel to “Chips Ahoy!”, which is awesome.

4.) “The Smidge” - Well, there goes the high and sense of restored faith I got from “The Weekenders,” because this is maybe the weakest song the Hold Steady have ever committed to tape. It sounds like a half-assed pastiche of recorded by a Hold Steady tribute band that decided to record an original song and only used that “classic-rock” tag that shows up in most reviews as a reference point. It sounds like a b-side, one you listen to and you're like “This is OK, but I'm glad as hell it's not on the record.” The end of the chorus sounds like a cheesy song from the 90s, but I can't remember the band's name. I think the song was in Dumb and Dumber, though, so you know where I'm coming from. The song feels half-formed, half-assed (did I say that already?), and like a demo for a song that might have been decent if it had more time to develop. Or maybe not.

5.) “Rock Problems” - When this track leaked, I didn't like it too much and I got worried about the forthcoming album. Now, I'm OK with it. But then again, after “The Smidge,” anything sounds great. Kubler tries his and at the piano and organ, and it just makes me miss the Franz. The riff on this one is a little flimsy and over simplified to the point of sounding a bit boring, but it's catchy enough. But man, were there always this many guitar solos on Hold Steady records? The one here sounds like Thin Lizzy, which is fine and all, but it's just kind of...there.

6.) “We Can Get Together” - This is the big moment of redemption. Halfway through this record, my feelings were mixed and this is the one that makes me love it a little. There's a perfect sweetness here, delivered with so much heart, unlike a few of the earlier tracks. This feels like true direction. Granted, I am a sucker for music references, especially nods to bands I'm currently obsessed with or was at one time. The nods to Husker Du kill me, and I find the line “Do you remember 'Makes No Sense at All'” to be incredibly clever due to a.) My love of that song and b.) the play on the translation of the aforementioned band's name blah blah. And I swear, “Heaven is whenever/ We can get together/ Lock your bedroom door/ And listen to your records” is the most perfect description of Heaven I've ever heard. It sounds perfect, and it's hitting my heart strings because my courtship with Jenny involved a lot of lying around my room listening to Neutral Milk Hotel and, natch, the Hold Steady. So there you go. On top of that, they mention my favorite twee-pop band, Heavenly, with biographical detail, and really, this feels personally tailored so I can overlooked the schmaltzyness of the “let it shine down on us all” part and just love the hell out of it.

7.) “Hurricane J” - OH SHIT! Things are really heating up now, especially after the fucking sweet transition between “We Can Get Together” and “Hurricane J” is like the aforementioned hurricane slamming into the harbor mentioned at the end of the song. This plays second fiddle only to “The Weekenders” in the race for “best fist pumping classic Hold Steady jam” on this album. It's more in line with previous tunes than “The Weekenders,” and it's the only one I've been singing along to in the car. At top volume. In the middle of traffic, fuck it, this one is pretty great and it's one of the few times Franz's absence is forgotten and the Hold Steady's makeshift new line-up really, really works. It's just a fucking blast. It's not as masterfully penned as most of Finn's best tunes, well, the first few verses. Once we get to the bridge, he lays it down hard. That “She says if heaven's hypothetical” line kills me. I'm a little lamb, looking up. And then that outro, goddamnit. It's a great fucking pop-rock song. And what's with all the references to heaven on this album? I mean, ok ok I KNOW the fucker's called Heaven is Whenever but it's like, at least 6 songs have a heaven reference, interesting.

8.) “Barely Breathing” - A wonderful little critique and analysis of the late 80s hardcore scene. It's an upbeat little beer-swilling barroom backroom jaunt with a simple message: “The Kids are all distracted” and “No one wins at violent shows.” It's slight, but still a fun track and a pretty damn good one.

9.) “Our Whole Lives” - Another song that finds the Hold Steady trying to be the old Hold Steady with a Springsteeny fist-pumper. And it works, pretty damn well. Not as memorable as any of the songs it reminds me of, but I can imagine seeing this one in a live setting, and in my imagination I'm getting really excited and yelling “OH FUCK YES!” when they lay into this one. I used to feel the same way about “You Can Make Him Like You” until I heard it live and now it's a hardcore favorite. I also can't tell if there's an actual saxophone on this album or if they're just really good at mimicking a sax on the guitar. I'm starting to wonder if I'm just pissed that the Hold Steady aren't coming to Lawrence OR Kansas City on their upcoming tour. I mean, SERIOUSLY GUYS don't you remember how fun that Bottleneck show was? YOU GOT CUPCAKES! WE BROUGHT CONFETTI AND THREW IT IN THE AIR AT THE PEAK OF “FIRST NIGHT”! Come onnnnnn! I know like, three or four people in this town that will show up and make it one to remember! Play Liberty Hall, it's the perfect venue for you! It's big but it's intimate. I'll admit, the last time you were here at the Granada almost killed me, but that's just because the sound is the worst ever there and that place is just generally horrible. And my girlfriend is trying very, very hard to convince me to drive to Omaha to see you and I'm sticking by my principles...for now, I will probably break down but still! I am saddened by this. But yeah, I wanna see this song live...and every song live.

10.) “A Slight Discomfort” - Easily the most different thing on the album. A spacious, echoy slow-burn jam that fucking slays. It sounds like the Hold Steady doing the closing credits track to a western or something. It's not like, westerny or anything like that, it's just got this totally engaging, epic feel that sprawls out, pushes you away and pulls you in and then halfway through the martial drums kick in, the track switches up and I'm bought and sold. Though this song is about New York City (or feels like New York City), this feels strategically placed since the rest of the album seems to have its heart and mind in Minneapolis. “And you say you're a princess/ But I remain unconvinced/ I've seen the guys that you've been with/ They don't seem much like princes,” Finn sings, his voice getting wrapped in reverb leading up to the triumphant ending, which comes as close to controlled chaos as the Hold Steady get.

I was hoping for a monster jam to close the album, given that every Hold Steady album follows the same pattern, and while this is no “Slapped Actress,” “Killer Parties,” “How a Resurrection Really Feels,” or “Southtown Girls,” it works, and it feels like the logical end to this album which finds the band, for the first time, in transition. They've fundamentally tweaked their sound, wandered into new territory all while clinging to their safety net with varying results. In the end, I like this album but I just don't think I'll ever be able to love it, and I feel like a lot of diehard fans might have that same problem. There just isn't that immediacy that the other four albums have. That getting sucked in from the first chord or riff and taking a ride with the Hold Steady. It's different, and while it's more detached, tracks like “We Can Get Together,” “The Weekenders,” and “A Slight Discomfort” hit me in places no Hold Steady songs have hit me before. The album's last line pretty much sums up everything I've been trying to convey: This shouldn't hurt, but you might feel a slight discomfort. I've still got my fingers crossed for a teary-eyed Hold Steady/Franz Nicolay reunion, but I'm not holding my breath and I'm ready for whatever. Now I just need to figure out if I'll have enough vacation days to cover a trip to Omaha this Summer.

Sigh. Note 1:32, where a peeved Craig Finn flips off the camera dude. To film the Hold Steady is a bit of a sin, I'd say, but then again, I often find myself watching youtube videos of their live sets.

And the only photo I've ever taken at a Hold Steady show was this one:

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