Monday, December 20, 2010

HEAVEN IS WHENEVER - The Hold Steady (2010)

After delivering two early career-defining classics in the mid-aughts with the snarling Separation Sunday and the Springsteeny Boys And Girls In America, and earning the moniker of best bar band in America (a moniker Titus Andronicus all but usurped in 2010), The Hold Steady have since found themselves struggling with the same issues that plague most band as they enter deeper into their career. 

How to keep it fresh?

How to tweak their sound and stay interested without alienating the small but fervent fan base they've worked so hard to earn?

To that end, on 2008's Stay Positive, they dabbled with odd instrumental arrangements previously out of character for the band; harpsichord on One For The Cutters, croony blues in Lord, I'm Discouraged, dark, murky atmospheric production on Both Crosses.  Unfortunately, aside from Discouraged, these forays into new territory were largely unsuccessful.

So 2010's Heaven Is Whenever finds the band still trying to address their midlife crisis, but in different ways.

Gone are the baroque instrumental arrangements...with the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolai, this is the most guitar heavy, instrumentally straightforward Hold Steady effort since Separation Sunday...and in their place are a few slower, almost countryish ballads, slick vocal choruses, and a whole lot of studio gloss.

Though criticized in other reviews, the ventures into a slower-paced, country feel really work for me, especially on the album's strongest track, nostalgic opener The Sweet Part of the City, which achieves a winning, intentionally lazy vocal groove I haven't heard from the band before.

And for the most part, I also like the enhanced choral melodies.

Though they may diminish some of the band's punch (singer Craig Finn's lyrics often seem to bite best when his singing is at its worst), this is without question the band's richest, most accomplished album vocally.  The backing vocals add a warm sentimentality to Soft In The Center and We Can Get Together, and really lift Our Whole Lives and fan favorite The Weekenders up a notch.

But the production on this album...Uggh! 

Studio gloss just doesn't fit this band, and here it is laid on in spades...super slick and soft around near every edge. That's not to say these songs don't rock, they do, but when some of your tracks, most notably Hurricane J, are starting to feel more Rick Springfield than Bruce Springsteen, you've got a problem.

In the end, I do think most fans will find Heaven Is Whenever a small step up from Stay Positive, maybe not as strong in the high points but definitely a steadier effort. 

But for newcomers to the band, as I said regarding Spoon and their recent release Transference, there are much better Hold Steady efforts to check out first.

Status: Solid Recommend.

Cherry Picker's Best Bets: The Sweet Part Of The City, Soft In The Center, The Weekenders, Our Whole Lives.

Here's an understated live-on-air performance of The Weekenders.

Component Breakdown:
4. The Smidge - 6
Intangibles - Average to Low

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What was your take on Heaven Is Whenever?  Let us know in the comments section.

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