The Hold Steady – Heaven is Whenever (Album Review)

April 19, 2010

I wonder how the fanbase and the music press are going to take “Heaven is Whenever,” the new album from The Hold Steady. It’s set for release the first week of May, but I was lucky enough to grab one of the 500 limited-edition advance vinyl copys at my local indie shop for Record Store Day 2010 this past Saturday. Sporting a pixelated cover that looks nothing like the advertised artwork in the upcoming release, and a nice shiny, see-through, clear vinyl, I placed it on the turntable and set down for 1 of the 6 times I’ve heard it so far.

It was slightly jarring at first, as it drew to a close. After hearing it through the first time, I realized lead singer songwriter Craig Finn never did his “thing,” that point where the music can’t keep up with all of the words he’s trying to squeeze out, where he stops the pretense of singing and just talks really fast. That didn’t happen; there was very little punk influence on any of the record either; I’ve recently been relistening to “Almost Killed Me,” their very first record, perhaps the rawest and punkiest of all their work, and this is as different from that as can be while still sounding clearly like The Hold Steady.
So I dropped it on the turntable for spin number two, and listened some more. It opens with a twangy, 1970s era-Stones attempting country music song, “The Sweet Part of the City.” Then songs from “Soft in the Center,” through to closer “A Slight Discomfort” fly by. Standouts along the way are lead-off single, “Hurricane J,” and side 2 opener “We Can Get Together,” ( a perfect song for Record Store Day with its “heaven is whenever, we can get together and listen to your records” chorus). What becomes clear that second time around is that these are really good, really solid rock songs; but they are straight-forward. I’d heard that Finn was taking singing lessons before “Stay Positive” came out, and if so, the proof for it is now here. He sings his way through the entire record, and it sounds good. Long-time fans might be dissapointed though; because with it’s verse-chorus structure, gone is the time for the further exploits of the characters (you know, Charlemagane, Stevie Nix, hoodrats, that “hallelujah chick,” etc.), gone is Finn’s manic street preacher routine, gone is some of that abrupt and abrasivenss that probably kept some folks away. So now, the world’s best bar band might actually appeal to more bar crowd folks. The lyrics still drop smart lines, Finn is certainly no slouch, and the band has always sounded tight, exciting, expert–that’s still the case.
So I’ll wait and see how the rest of folks take it; the indie press loved their first two records, the slightly more mainstream press loved their next two, now will everyone like this one? Or just the mainstream? I don’t care, it’s good stuff, the band still rocks, you still can’t go wrong catching a live show from them. I’ll keep spinning this the rest of the year, get the free downloads that came with the LP when it’s mass-released, and throw it on my i-pod…I’ll see what my verdict is when I recap the music at the end of the year!
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