There are very few bands out there that are as divisive as The Hold Steady. To devoted fans, they’re a band that is profusely loved (I know a friend that is planning to attend all of their shows in the LA area [three shows in three nights] right around their album release) by some and they’re a band that is vehemently disliked by others. But what’s most puzzling is that very few – on either side – seem to understand what the other side is hearing.
I’ve been around folks who can tell you the stories of Gideon, Charlemagne and Holly and how they are still rotating, taking turns, revolving from the band’s stories like mythology. And I’ve been around folks who simply cannot stand lead singer, Craig Finn’s, drawling voice or when you request them to listen to the songwriting, they cannot get past some aspect in the music that they dislike. So this is definitely confusing for anyone who enjoys their music because as I’ve learned, The Hold Steady is most definitely one of the better bands currently making music right now.
Following the career-changing albums that Separation Sunday and Boys and Girls in America were, there was an obvious dip with the music streaming from Stay Positive. And their method was the same; it’s just that something didn’t really connect on the latter album, almost as if something wasn’t clicking. Even with the loss of pianist Franz Nicolay, the band picked up where they left off and crafted ten new songs that all gel together, flow together and rock together with a powerful energy and even better lyrics. On “Soft in the Center,” you have to love Finn’s advice when he gently sings, “You can’t kiss every girl, you gotta trust me on this one – you gotta trust me on this one – I know what you’re going through, I had to go through that too,” because such lines still hit as hard as they ever did and when the thrilling guitar solo follows, it’s evident that this is a tighter, leaner band.
The loss of Nicolay was something that was discussed by many different people because yes, his instrument added a different color and tone to the band’s sound that provided a lot of dimension. But I don’t think you could ever doubt a band that built their reputation on writing the killer riff and hook and matching it with some of the most memorable lines in the music business. Heaven is Whenever seems much more focused on the effects of searching for love and the ensuing problems we get ourselves in. And as long as the charm and wit is still intact, then we have some hope of being able to brush it off.
Bruce Springsteen was always someone Finn and his band looked up to and this time around, Finn seems to be channeling not only Springsteen’s practices but his actual singing style too. Many times, you can hear a vibrato in his voice and it’s apparent that his singing has clearly improved. The middle placement of “We Can Get Together” is a resoundingly choice selection with gorgeous chanting vocals in the background, Finn reveals the album title when he sings, “Heaven is whenever we can get together, sit down on the floor and listen to your records,” this is such a sweet and yet, simple expression of love – just sitting with the one you love, listening to music: sounds beautiful to me. And on “The Weekenders,” Finn details how we really don’t have a choice when facing what to do in our ‘bar-light lives.’ Those moments where people transform and become someone they always deny being in their ‘day-light lives.’ The guitar behind him is a fluid one that only crunches through on the chorus and the song shakes with a cool flow.
And that’s where The Hold Steady has continued to make such compellingly strong music. When everything is working in your favor and you’re cutting out slices of life that encompass the American spirit – working hard, partying hard, loving hard and trying hard – everything just seems to flow out of the band as if it’s just meant to be that way. But Heaven is Whenever is not just a vast improvement from their last effort but it’s also a fifth album from a band that still sounds surprisingly awesome and it’s just another album for a detractor to listen to and hopefully, fall in love with – it’s only a matter of time.