The Hold Steady
Heaven Is Whenever
May 06, 2010 Issue #31 - Spring 2010 - Joanna Newsom
Who would have thought that a handlebar 'stache would be so sorely missed? In all seriousness, the owner of said moustache—The Hold Steady's keyboardist and multi-instrumentalist Franz Nicolay—was an integral part in writing the critical darlings' success story. On the one-two punch of 2005's Separation Sunday and 2006's Boys and Girls in America, he effortlessly threaded his piano lines through Craig Finn's gruff ruminations on a drugged-up American Dream. Tad Kubler's electric guitar blared through the speakers and all was well. Even though 2008's Stay Positive was a slight step down in the grand statement department, Nicolay's harpsichord and electronic experiments to his "favorite album" kept things noteworthy.
On The Hold Steady's fifth album, Heaven Is Whenever, Kubler's Almost Killed Me-style guitar riffing and spacious, filmic soundscapes essentially replace Nicolay's piano stabs. Kubler has also noted scores by Gustavo Santaolalla, Terence Blanchard, and Jon Brion as a direct influence in interviews. The effect of drawing from film often results in overwrought, boilerplate-style stadium rock ("Rock Problems," "Our Whole Lives," "The Smidge").
The band's abrupt maturations read more like backpedaling and stifle their best lyrical and musical intentions. The best example of this disconcerting situation is lead single, "Hurricane J." When the track was released earlier this year, even diehard fans grumbled that it was all chorus and not much meat. Finn's early disclaimer that Heaven Is Whenever would be less concerned with fist-pumping and more about embracing struggle, bears itself out during the LP's sluggish back-half.
Characters and one-liners from past releases dot Finn's drug-induced back alleys and Industrial Age-themed house parties. "Barely Breathing" is a brassy strummer that evokes the violence and good humor of some of The Hold Steady's best tracks. (Extra points for the clarinet solo.) "The Weekenders" sets its party scene with the same bombastic poise. Despite the veteran group putting in a valiant effort, Heaven Is Whenever will largely be known as "the transitional LP." Hey, at least Bobby Drake's drums still sound exceptional. (www.theholdsteady.net)
Author rating: 6/10
Average reader rating: 7/10
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