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Andy Whitman

The Hold Steady -- Heaven is Whenever

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I'll admit that the two tracks we've heard don't blow my mind, but I just thought I'd mention that if anything STAY POSITIVE has grown a lot on me in the last two years (I think "Lord, I'm Discouraged" might be one of my favourite Hold Steady tracks, with that sweet guitar solo and devastating lyrics). Hopefully HIW does the same.

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If you asked me, right now, to name the two worst songs The Hold Steady ever cut, I'd have to name the two we've heard from this album. Hopefully, hearing the whole piece-- and giving it some time to sink in-- will dramatically change my opinion of this material. But for now, my hopes are seriously dashed.

See, but the thing is this: "Rock Problems" is better than "One for the Cutters" (sorry). Plus, this one references Jim Carroll! Eyeano. This isn't my favorite THS track, but it's good enough to give me faith in the rest of the album.

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These two songs certainly don't do ANYTHING to confirm the band's comments about the album; it is not more complex, it is not less anthemic, it is not a particularly "new sound" for them, unless you count the absence of keyboards as a new direction.

Right now, all I'm hearing is The Hold Steady making a Weezer album-- granted, with better lyrics.

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MTV's got another new song.

Just got back from the New Haven show. It was weird not seeing Franz, but they've replaced him (heard rumors that it's Judd, from the first album; whoever he was he had a massive analog synth that he exploited well), and they've added a third guitarist, as well, who looks like a shaggier Patterson Hood. They sound incredible--this is my third show and they far outshined the other two. The new songs sounded great--even "Hurricane J" sounded better with the live energy behind it. The title comes from a line, something along the lines of "Heaven is whenever / We can get together / Sit down on your floor / And listen to your records." So, yeah, it's a Hold Steady song. There was another slow song, which was, as far as I can tell, a love song; the chorus was something like "You can't get all the girls / You can get the one you love the most / You can't love all the girls / You love the one you get the most." Very nice.

I'm letting go of my doubting. They're still the best live band in America.

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That MTV song ('The Weekenders') is really good - I thought 'Hurricane J' was a bit lowest common denominator, especially the production, but this is just fine.

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And it's ... okay. Granted, this is after only one listen, and experience has taught me that Hold Steady albums deserve far more than one listen. So I'll listen a lot more. But first impressions are that it's an anthemic Hold Steady album, only less. For what it's worth, there are keyboards, although they tend to be fairly generic synth washes, and nothing like Franz Nicolay's E Street Band concertos. Tad Kubler lays down his usual assortment of classic rock power riffs. This time they sound a bit more cliched to me. The lyrics? People go to parties, experience existential angst after imbibing/snorting/popping various legal and illegal substances. Craig Finn opines that heaven is whenever people get together and listen to records, a sentiment that I can sorta get behind, but which seems a little underwhelming to me. I know it's only rock 'n roll, but I like it. But, you know, it's only rock 'n roll.

This might be the sound of a band running out of steam. Speaking of steam, the best lyric involves a theme party where the theme is the industrial age, and our undaunted heroine, this time unnamed, comes in looking like a train wreck. So there are still some killer lyrics, but the parties don't sound killer anymore. Again, though, this is a first impression. I'll stick around for repeated listenings.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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My first impression is exactly like Andy's. Which means that I'm very disappointed. But yes: I said the same thing after my first treks through all of their past albums, so hopefully this will open itself up to me more.

That said, a couple of moments here had me muttering to myself that The Hold Steady has essentially made a Weezer record. And as much as I like Weezer, this is NOT a positive development.

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My first impression is exactly like Andy's. Which means that I'm very disappointed. But yes: I said the same thing after my first treks through all of their past albums, so hopefully this will open itself up to me more.

That said, a couple of moments here had me muttering to myself that The Hold Steady has essentially made a Weezer record. And as much as I like Weezer, this is NOT a positive development.

My opinions are far from fully-formed, but I've actually found the record to be something of a relief. I think "Hurricane J" works much better in its context; had the whole thing sounded like that song, I would have been worried. But I think that the risks pay off, for the most part; I'm enjoying "The Sweet Part of the City". I'm a bit worried about Craig's lyrics, though, for the same reasons that Andy pointed out.

To me, the big question to answer here is What kind of record should the Hold Steady have made? I think it's wise for them to get away from the ultra-anthems--which they started to do on Stay Positive--but I'm not sure that they've arrived anywhere yet. *shrug* At this point, it's reminding me of The Replacements circa Pleased to Meet Me (and not just because of the gross 80s guitar on "Our Whole Lives," which is otherwise a pretty great song)--scattered, not as wide-eyed and brilliant as its predecessors, but still a solid record.

Edited by mrrrty

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One thing I'll say for this album: It's making me appreciate Stay Positive a lot more in retrospect. Sure, not all of the experiments worked perfectly, but the album's got musical ambition and lyrical sophistication; in fact, Separation Sunday is their only album that rivals it on either count. And I'd prefer that over this latest holding pattern.

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What gives me hope for The Hold Steady is that the stinkers on this album are the ones that sound like Hold Steady by-the-numbers; the more experimental numbers (for them), like "Sweet Part of the City" and "Barely Breathing," are actually pretty stellar. So it's not as if they've exhausted their possibilities, or written themselves into a corner. I think they'll go on to make another winner after this one. This one is just filled with... growing pains.

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I've only had one full listen yet, but with that said, I'm terribly disappointed. "The Sweet Part of the City" is a great opening-- a very nice change from the traditional Hold Steady sound, and I love the traditional sound. However, on this particular album, to my ears (at least as of now), most of the more conventional-sounding songs seem rote and weary, and most of the experiments don't work very well. (Strangely, I really like "Hurricane J"-- very traditional Hold Steady.) I may feel completely differently in two weeks though-- I hope so.

Honestly, and it pains me to say this about a band I dearly love, but I think they need a break from recording and touring-- a real break, maybe four or five years. For the most part, the songwriting just doesn't seem very inspired anymore.

However, I admit that one factor playing into my disappointment with this album is its overall slickness. Unlike many people on the board, my favorite HS discs are Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday. None of their other works, for me, has had the same combination of raw, brutal attack *and* brilliant songwriting that those two have. I do enjoy the third album (and like the fourth more than many), but the more that they come off sounding big-budget "studio-recorded," the more I miss the rawness of "The Swish."

Edited by Christopher Lake

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Four stars in the new Rolling Stone. Now I KNOW I'm right to be disappointed.

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Sorry Josh, no slack. It's dead boring.

I don't know if it's dead boring (although I'd probably be okay with "mostly boring"). There are a couple sonic experiments and deviations from the classic Hold Steady sound, and the refusal to rest on past laurels is at least admirable in theory. The reality? Well, I'd say the band is one for two on the experiments, with "The Sweet Part of the City" succeeding as an unexpected Led Zep III folkie excursion, and "Barely Breathing" failing miserably as an amorphous blob of sound without melodic, rhythmic, or lyrical value. The rest, except for "Hurricane J," just sounds like The Hold Steady to me, only more tired. And "Hurricane J" sounds like Fountains of Wayne. This is the first Hold Steady album I've encountered that makes me want to shrug my shoulders and say, "Next." I'm hoping that Next is a lot better.

Edited by Andy Whitman

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I really want to love Heaven is Whenever, but I haven't found my way in yet. It seems like a holding pattern after the intermittently great Stay Positive. Craig Finn seems to be rehashing well covered lyric terrain, but that still hasn't stopped me from falling for the pretty acoustic opener "Sweet Part of The City", the big circa '77 riffage of "Rock Problems" and the rock geek anthem "We Can Get Together", a mash note to anyone that's ever posted on a music message board or felt the ache of loving music too much. I'll keep probing, hoping for more songs to suck me in.

But I can report that they are still a passionate, life-affirming live act, having seen three times in the last 3 weeks.

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I wish I could like this band. I've tried and tried. But Finn's prevalent tone of snarkiness, while it suits the "character" and enlivens the storytelling, has grated on me from the start. I can listen to a song or two, on occasion, and appreciate it, but I never get through a whole album.

So I'm assuming that this album won't be worth my time, since I worked hard to admire, but never really enjoyed, their previous releases.

Edited by Overstreet

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FWIW, here are my thoughts. I found this to be an incredibly challenging record to write about. I agree with the forming critical consensus that it's weaker than the rest of their catalog, but I do manage to enjoy it and consider it something of an accomplishment when I can divorce it from my expectations and understanding of what makes the Hold Steady great. Is that a fair way to judge the album? I have no idea, and I'd be interested in hearing what people have to say re whether we should take a band's previous work into consideration. Because, honestly, if this weren't The Hold Steady, I think I'd be pretty deeply into it. But all I can hear are the ways it could be better.

Edited by mrrrty

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Because, honestly, if this weren't The Hold Steady, I think I'd be pretty deeply into it. But all I can hear are the ways it could be better.

I've seen much hand-wringing regarding the new album from THS loyalists - mostly that Heaven is Whenever isn't Separation Sunday or B&GIA. And I think that's Marty's point - do you grade HiW on a Hold Steady scale (it's a C/C+) or a 2010 scale (B+/A)?

Great review, too.

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