Monday, August 23, 2010

Quick 'N Dirty Review: The Hold Steady | Heaven Is Whenever

Before we start, here's a quick look at the rating system that we use here at The Dirtywhirl:

100 - Classic Album; One Of The Best Of All Time
99-90 - Exceptional Work; Rush Out And Get This
89-80 - Very, Very Good; You Should Still Go Out And Get This
79-70 - Not Bad At All; Might Actually Be Worth Your Time
69-60 - Has Its Moments But On The Whole... Meh
59-50 - Won't Make Your Ears Bleed; Won't Make You Dance, Either
49-0 - Don't Waste Your Time; You're Smarter Than This (Probably)

Now... onto the review:

The Hold Steady | Heaven Is Whenever

Let’s get this out of the way right off the bat. The Hold Steady are a grossly overhyped band. Their entire catalog has been decent but nowhere near deserving of the love it’s gotten from critics and fans. Craig Finn’s half speak/half sing vocal affectation is really annoying. They’re not a very deep band. They’re too fixated on Springsteen. Ultimately, they’re the indie rock equivalent of Hootie And The Blowfish (and I say that as an unabashed Hootie fan). They’re a bar band (albeit a hyper-literate one) who hit a nerve and probably grew a larger profile than their talents warranted. With all of that said, you’d think that their latest effort, Heaven is Whenever, wouldn’t be worth the time that it would take to listen to it but surprisingly it’s their best album to date and, more than that, it’s a very enjoyable listen. It’s somewhat ironic that this is the first Hold Steady release to receive lukewarm critical response yet to my ears it’s their most accessible and listenable album yet. It opens with the country-tinged slide guitar of “The Sweet Part Of The City,” where Finn actually SINGS (as he does on a majority of the record – I know, right?) and eventually leads into “The Weekenders,” their best song to date and their most likely shot at a crossover. It’s a very strong track with an incredibly catchy hook as Finn sings, “So if it has to be a secret/ Then I guess that I can deal with it/ You and I both know it’s a negative thing/ In the end, only girls know the whole truth.” Did they write the track hoping for mainstream success? Maybe, but if they did the calculation doesn’t matter because it’s a great track that starts on a mellow and subdued note before building to a cathartic release. Another standout, the catchy and anthemic “Hurricane J,” possesses a hook that’s very similar to “The Weekenders,” which is probably why it's as good as it is. To boil it down to its simplest terms, many of Heaven Is Whenever’s tracks are a variation on the same theme – an examination of problems with girls or with life backed by some very solid guitars. In fact, much of the guitar work on this record is stronger than I remember them displaying on past albums. For example, “Soft In The Center” finds the fortune cookie sentiment of “You won’t get every girl/ You’ll love the ones you get the best” supported by an almost Slash-esque guitar flourish. On a similar note, even the goopy emotions of “We Can Get Together” (“Heaven is whenever/ We can get together”) make the track work in spite of its earnestness. It also shouldn’t go unnoted that their Springsteen fixation is as present as ever but that they’ve integrated it into their own sound to much better effect than on past records and they use it to craft a strong autumnal atmosphere. It’s not without its mistakes (it is a Hold Steady album, after all) but if I’m ever going to feel the urge to listen to a Hold Steady album (rare as that urge may be) Heaven Is Whenever is the record that’s going to be playing on my iPod. This is not an album that I went in expecting or even wanting to like. Damned if I don’t though.

Standout Tracks: “The Weekenders;” “Hurricane J;” “The Sweet Part Of The City”

Dirty Rating: 78/100

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