It’s the dobro on the song “The Sweet Part of the City” that you hear first on the new Hold Steady album Heaven Is Whenever (Vagrant Records) . Your immediate reaction is that something new is afoot. The thing is, it’s not. Not really. I should tell you that I am a big fan of the Hold Steady. I think that their 2006 album Boys and Girls in America is one of the best albums of the decade, plus the three or four Hold Steady shows that I’ve been to are among the most transcendent live performances I’ve ever seen. So why does the new album leave me with a vague sense of disappointment?
Craig Finn is a great spinner of tales. I don’t know if I would call him a great singer, because I’m not sure that what he does could be called singing. He does what the songs call for vocally and does it effectively. And by the way he is one of the most oddly charismatic frontmen I’ve encountered in many years. So Heaven Is Whenever is, like the other Hold Steady albums, filled with tales of growing up in Minnesota, and life in a rock and roll band. As Finn says in “Soft In the Center,” “you can’t tell people what they want to hear if you also want to tell the truth.”
One major difference between this album and earlier Hold Steady efforts is that this one is much more guitar-oriented. The departure of keyboard player Franz Nicolay from the band has caused the band’s sound, which has always been guitar-based, to be even more so. The good news is that guitarist Tad Kubler has really come into his own here, offering up a variety of classic rock riffs, and ripping a couple of pretty cool solos like the one on the hard charging song “The Weekenders”.
Maybe it’s because I was once married to a crazy waitress, but the album’s first single “Hurricane J” hits me where I live. It’s a classic Finn story about a doomed summer romance with a girl named Jesse:
“I know you’re gonna say
What I know you’re gonna say
I know you’ll look at the ground
I know you’ll probably cry
You’re a beautiful girl
And you’re a pretty good waitress
But Jesse I don’t think I’m the guy”
So yeah, Heaven Is Whenever is more of the same, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are a bunch of cool new Hold Steady songs, and some fresh opportunities to stand right up close to the stage and jump up and down like a maniac when they come to your town this summer.
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