You might think of The Hold Steady as a band that combines rugged riffs and anthemic melodies into most (if not all) of their songs. Others think of the band as the “pub rock” band that only writes songs about drinking heavily and chasing girls. Either way, you can usually find a way to enjoy the type of music the band makes record after record and not get sick of it.
Heaven Is Whenever marks the band’s fifth full length release, coming a couple of years after 2008’s stellar Stay Positive and the live album A Positive Rage. The group has been through some changes within that time period, losing Franz Nicolay, the band’s multi-instrumentalist best known for his impressive mustache and wacky accordion and organ skills. The change shook up the sound a bit, but the band’s sound stays true. Twangy opener “The Sweet Part of the City” gives us something we haven’t seen in sometime from the band, a song that doesn’t knock your socks off to start the album. To try to overcome “Hornets, Hornets” (Separation Sunday), “Stuck Between Stations” (Boys & Girls In America), and “Constructive Summer” (Stay Positive) as an opener to an album just seems like an unmanageable task.
The band doesn’t push it full throttle immediately, which is a plus. “Soft in the Center” and “The Weekenders” pick up the pace to say the least following “City”, throwing what seems to be as many guitars as there are members of the band into the mix. The tracks feel as if those pianos we’ve come to love from the band could’ve slid right in, but doesn’t feel empty without them dominating a song like “Stuck Between Stations” or “First Night” from past Hold Steady albums. Craig Finn’s vocals are pretty spot on throughout the record, highlights being the single “Hurricane J” and first half standout “The Weekenders”.
The Hold Steady’s sound shifted a bit in the time Nicolay was with the band, but we can see a shift back to some of the characteristics of a band we saw with Separation Sunday, a more straightforward rock sound without songs smothered in pianos and organs. “Rock Problems” seems very generic, but luckily does not stick out before the second half of the record. “Barely Breathing” nearly fools us with the clunky guitar intro progressing into perhaps the most graceful track on the record (wait, is that a woodwind I hear?). The rare lengthy track “A Slight Discomfort” also highlights the second half of Heaven, displaying more of the vocal mixtures that are unfamiliar to most Hold Steady fans.
In several interviews Finn was quoted as saying the sound of the band would be “less anthemic” than past records, but there isn’t much indication anything has changed in Camp Hold Steady. Consistently good tracks compiled into albums for the band make them one of the better groups in music today. Although critics would say they reuse the same formula album after album, there’s definite differences in musicianship throughout Heaven Is Whenever. It might take a few listens to understand it, but as he says at the end of “Rock Problems”, “This is just what we wanted”, which I tend to agree with.
WPGU Music Staff Rating: W-P-G
Key Tracks: “A Slight Discomfort”, “Hurricane J”, “Barely Breathing”
Recommended if you like: Titus Andronicus, The National, and Ted Leo & The Pharmacists.
W = Poor
W-P = Fair
W-P-G = Great
W-P-G-U = An instant classic!