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TBTS Reviews: The Hold Steady, Heaven Is Whenever

June 1, 2010

“We’re good guys, but we can’t be good every night” sings the still-slurry-but-improving Craig Finn on The Hold Steady’s Heaven is Whenever, the latest from the Brooklyn-via-Minneapolis bar band finally beginning to get its due. Despite that feeling, they’re awfully good here. It’s taken The Hold Steady four studio albums and a live album to finally get out from under the check out these hot new bands! umbrella, but Heaven Is Whenever should officially get them out of the shade and into the light where they belong.

That’s not, of course, to say Heaven Is Whenever is The Hold Steady’s first truly great album — many fans (and, certainly, this reviewer himself) feel that the band’s been firing on all cylinders since day one — or at least since the band’s second album Separation Sunday, a mix of pub rock and spoken word poetry that focused on the travails of Gideon, a skinhead, Charlemagne, a pimp, and Holly, an addict trying to find salvation through drug use. The prior may sound rather bleak, but I assure you it’s very much not — one of the The Hold Steady’s superpowers is the ability to wrestle the memories of your messiest, wildest and most rollicking bar nights straight out of your head.

Heaven Is Whenever sees the band — sans former keyboardist Franz Nicolay, who left the band to pursue other musical interests — back in fantastic form under the guidance of Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler. From drunken hookups to drug deals gone bad to last call, the music is solid, sound and perpetually anthemic (for a bar-style band, Finn and company crank out an amazingly huge sound — something even more notiecable in their energetic live shows).

All that great, powerfully anthemic music means nothing, however, if the lyrics can’t keep up — and the lyrics here are among Finn’s best, alternately the ramblings of a verbose friend falling off the barstool or the poor guy stuck taking the fall for the weed while his better-looking friend steals out of the backseat with the girl he’s been trying to woo all night. The Hold Steady excels by tapping into shared experiences to which anyone who’s ever spent a massive amount of time in bars can attest, and as such the music becomes a universal celebration of those things we all know and the people we’ve all been. This comes in both forms philosophical (“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”) and witty (“The theme of this party’s the industrial age / you came in dressed as a train wreck”).  Either way, Finn’s diction and words are as much fun as the music.

Setting the stage with “The Sweet Part of the City,” in which we can practically hear New York lighting up for the evening,  Heaven opens strong and rallies into the upbeat and poetically-waxing “The Weekenders,” “The Smidge”  and “Rock Problems.”  A solid third act features the pining “Hurricane J” and the bouncy “Barely Breathing” before ending with the seven-minute epilogue “A Slight Discomfort,” which promises “We’ll be alright, we’ll get through the night / our struggle still feels wonderful most days.” With Nicolay out of the mix, the album has less of a drunken E Street Band feel, which is both good and bad. While that tinkling piano added so much, Nicolay’s absence does force the music to explore some new melodic avenues to great effect. But Finn, Kubler and their comrades are still at it.

A recent performance of “The Weekenders” on The Late Show With David Letterman saw Letterman joining the band afterward, effusing as much as Letterman effuses over anything, muttering over and over “just beautiful, just wonderful.” Rolling Stone also appears to officially be on the Hold Steady bandwagon these days, which is nice to see. But despite the growing acclaim and hype for the band, the greatest thing about them is that when you listen to Heaven is Whenever — or any of the Hold Steady’s albums, for that matter — you feel as if they belong only to you, as if in some way they’re singing about your own life. It’s a rare band that can so consistently retro-fit itself to a specific time in its listeners’ lives. And that — in true Hold Steady form — deserves a giant, several-shot toast of its own.

Heaven Is Whenever is available now from Vagrant Records.

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