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  • Initial Impressions: The Hold Steady - Heaven is Whenever

    Apr 19 2010, 2:11

    Ok so I often get a bit jealous reading about people who just get so 'into' loads of different albums and have so much to say about them, I don't really seem to have enough time to obessively listen to what seems like every single new album that comes out, and then form a full opinion of each one. I also struggle to get excited about new albums a lot of the time - I mean I look forward to a lot of records, but I mean properly 'Christmas Eve when you're 5 years old' excited about an album.

    However, The Hold Steady are by far my favourite band, and so naturally I couldn't fucking wait for their new record, 'Heaven Is Whenever', due May 4th.

    Except the band obviously love good ole' fashioned indie record stores, as to celebrate Record Store Day 2010, the latest installment of everyone with an eBay account's favourite day, they released an amazing-looking limited edition vinyl of Heaven Is Whenever. So, upon listening to it all the way through around 10 times or so, here are my humble, initial impressions on all things 'Heaven Is Whenever'. I'll go through it track by track first, and then kinda sum it up at the end.

    Obviously, 2 days isn't a fair amount of time to fully judge a record, The Hold Steady especially, make albums that I still find new things to enjoy years after they've been released, and so I want to stress these are my initial, first impressions only.


    The Sweet Part of the City
    Ok, so The Hold Steady have a history of pretty awesome openers: 'Constructive Summer', 'Stuck Between Stations' and 'Hornets! Hornets!' are punchy, anthemic songs that come roaring out the tracks and just basically rock. Whilst 'Positive Jam' is a firm fan favourite, it's not actually one of my choice Hold Steady songs, however I can fully appreciate it's impact as an opener.

    All of which leads to me to this: what the fuck is 'Sweet Part Of The City' all about? It's actually a not bad song; twangy, almost country-esque guitars - think The Eagles, Drive-By Truckers, a bit of Led Zep, even kinda Stones-y. However, as the first track, the statement of intent, it's simply baffling. It goes nowhere, it just sort of meanders along, and in a wider context, is completely non-representative of the rest of the album and no sign whatsoever of anything that is about to follow.

    Where all the other album openers shone as leading you into the record with a kick, a kind of setting of the stage, 'The Sweet Part Of The City' totally falls flat. I can't began to understand why it was chosen as the first track. It's not necessarily such a bad song you wouldn't want it on the record,but it's a sort of '3/4 of the way through' track, just before the big finale, and not, in my opinion, an opener.



    Soft in the Center
    This is much closer to the 'classic' Hold Steady sound, and not a bad track at all. For a reason I can't really explain, I love the way the opening line comes in, just after the little pause, Finn comes in with "Well the hospital's gonna let you go/ But the city's gonna stick around" over chugging guitars, a solid drumbeat and a nice little piano gliss.

    My problem with this track is the kinda cheesy lyrics in the chorus:

    "You can't get every girl,
    You'll get the ones you love the best,
    You won't get every girl,
    You'll love the ones you get the best."


    Yeah, I get what he's trying to say, and more so I think it's pretty cool - it's classic Craig Finn, stuff 'the kids can relate to'. But the expression just seems so clumsy and, there is no other word than cheesy.

    There's no arguing with the solo though, it's pretty classic Tad Kubler, and probably one of the best solos on the record.

    Even though it's just a fairly standard Hold Steady track, this would have made more sense as an opener.



    The Weekenders
    I can't remember where I got this quote from, but with regards to this track, it was said: "You know you're old when you live to hear your favourite band sound like U2."

    Now I'm not gonna argue with that, there is a definite U2 feel to this track, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's pretty atmospheric, with some nice delay and reverb on the guitars. The chorus crashes in pretty nicely as well, and remains firmly stuck in your head.

    The lyrics are a throwback to 'Chips Ahoy!' from 'Boys & Girls in America', and contains one of the record's stand-out lines in:

    "She said the theme of this party is the industrial age, you came in dressed like a train wreck."

    Ah Craig Finn how I love you...

    All in all this is definitely one of the better tracks on the record.



    The Smidge
    This is a rocker, and kinda sounds like it might belong on Almost Killed Me/Seperation Sunday - except if it was on one of those records it would be one of the weaker tracks...

    It's not that bad really, and the chorus is quite fun, and it's got a pretty chunky riff but it just isn't really anything special. I wouldn't skip it, but I don't think I'd really put it on to listen to on it's own. Plus, bits of it sound a little bit like another song, which I can hear in my head but can't think what it is. It might be 'Clampdown' by The Clash, but I'm not sure and it's annoying me every time I listen to it. Answers on a postcard...



    Rock Problems
    I think this song is supposed to kinda 'tounge-in-cheek', almost a bit of fun. And for those reasons I like it. It's got a decent riff, and it's catchy as fuck, the little solo is pretty cool as well. The lyrics are pretty good as well, massive respect for the Jim Carroll references. To fault it though, it does contain the line:

    "One girl cornered me in the kitchen, I said I'd do anything but clean"

    Of which the less said, the better.

    It's a decent little song, but I almost feel strange listening to it as The Hold Steady haven't really ever done a joke-y sort of song before. Still, maybe I'm wrong and I'm reading into it too much, I should just enjoy it. I'm not totally sure how I feel about this one.



    We Can Get Together
    Of all the songs on the record, this was the one I'd had the highest hopes for. I'd heard some live bootlegs of this track when it was known as 'Heaven is Whenever' and I loved it. Now I've got the full recorded version, I'm a bit disappointed at what they've done with it.

    A lot of early criticism has said it's over-produced, which I can sort of agree with. Although my main problem is the stuff they've added in the studio has made it sound less like a track by the band The Hold Steady, and more like stuff you'd hear on a cheesy 1980s FM pop-ballad. There are now some extremely weird sounding 'ah-ah' backing vocals throughout the chorus, which despite my total lack of recording studio practices, I would struggle to believe is actually real people singing - it sounds like the 'choir' effect you used to get on Yamaha keyboards.

    And the solo! Live it had a completely intense Tad Kubler solo, all classic rock, melodic and epic. I don't even really like guitar solos that much, but I really liked this one, and so I sat waiting in with anticipation for the moment I knew the solo to end all solos (/hyperbole) was about to rip in, only to hear...

    The fucking weird backing vocals. They have replaced the solo. There might be some faint brass bits as well but they're pretty low in the mix. So yeah, the guitar solo got replaced with the shitty retro-in-a-bad way sounding vocals. I am gutted. Still, at least from recent bootlegs they're still playing it with the solo live.

    On the plus side, this song has awesome lyrics, probably the best on the album. References abound, my favourite being the Pavement 'Heaven is a Truck' one. The chorus of the song is also one of my favourite moments on the album:

    "Heaven is whenever, we can get together,
    Sit down on your floor and listen to your records.
    Heaven is whenever, we can get together,
    Lock your bedroom door, and listen to your records."


    It's lyrics like this that are the reason I love The Hold Steady. Makes me wish I had a cool girlfriend with a good taste in music who would sit and listen to The Hold Steady with me. It's statements like this which probably explain why I don't have a girlfriend at all.

    So yeah, for all it's faults I do still really like this song. Maybe it's because I wanted to like it before I heard the recorded version, but I realise I've been kinda slating the album so far, which is totally not my intention as I do enjoy it, so yeah fuck it this is a good song.



    Hurricane J
    This is the lead single, and kinda sounds like this album's equivalent of 'Sequestered In Memphis' - a sort of pop-rocker aimed at the radio. I realise in some circles that would be seen as a negative thing, but I don't really think there's too much wrong with going for a 'big single'. And for my money, this is far better than 'Sequestered...'.

    It's got some 'whoa-whoa' backing vocals, a big riff and a big chorus, so in that respect it's probably got a lot of potential as a single, and will probably go on to be a live favourite. I know Craig Finn as said in several interviews that this album is 'less anthemic', yet if there is one song that defies that claim it's definitely this one.

    It's got some really nice lines as well:

    "But 22 and banging 'round in restaurants, isn't that much prettier than banging 'round in bars."

    "I don't want this stop, I just want you to know, I don't want you to settle, I want you to grow"

    "They didn't name her for a saint, they named her for a star."




    Barely Breathing
    Along with 'Soft Part of the City', this is the most 'different' sounding track on the record. Although I read someone somewhere say that this sounded a bit like 'Cattle and the Creeping Things' from 'Seperation Sunday', which I can sort of see and agree with, it does have that sort of feel. I keep thinking it sounds a bit like Gogol Bordello or something like that, I might be way off though, I just get that sort of feeling. It's quite quirky, and I don't mean that in a bad way at all, I actually really, really like this song. It has a solo from a woodwind instrument and I don't wanna embarrass myself as I don't really know much about woodwind instruments but it sounds a bit like a clarinet...? Anyway, I know on paper that has the potential to sound horrific, but rest assured it doesn't, it fits well.

    It also contains a line which will no doubt turn into a Hold Steady 'catchphrase' in "no-one wins at violent shows", which I think is a pretty cool line.



    Our Whole Lives
    For me this is almost the opposite 'We Can Get Together'. I had live bootlegs of this as well where I thought it was a decent track but I wasn't overly excited, where as the recorded version is awesome. It's a fairly conventional Hold Steady sounding song, except it's a really, really good one.

    Continuing the 'opposite of WCGT' theme, the stuff that's been done in the studio adds so much to this one. It's got some amazing 'ooh-la-lala' backing vocals under the chorus, but you'll have to listen carefully 'cos they're pretty subtle. The brass that's been put in also sounds great. Oh yeah, and handclaps. What more could you want.

    Best song on the record? At a push, I'd probably say yes.



    A Slight Discomfort
    Much like their openers, The Hold Steady have a pretty solid track record with closers. 'Killer Parties', 'How a Resurrection Really Feels' and 'Slapped Actress' are 3 of the most perfect closing tracks I can think of; epic, fitting finales. I don't actually rate 'Southtown Girls' that much as a song or a closer, it's alright but not even in the same league as the other three mentioned.

    So with all this to live up to, can 'A Slight Discomfort' succeed where 'Soft Part of the City' failed? I would say, resoundingly, yes.

    It's a great closing track, it begins all moody and quite dark before building to an awesome climax, complete with crashing drums, swathes of distorted guitars and what could even be strings (although it could just be synths, it's really low in the mix).

    It also contains another of my favourite moments in the album, the transition from 'moody' to 'epic':

    "New York City I love it when you turn on your lights,
    Our struggle still feels wonderful tonight."


    With that, it crashed into the finale and the album ends on a real high (I suppose not lyrically as it's quite bleak, but I just mean in sense of it ending well). A little aside, but tradtionally I know live from seeing them a couple of times and listening to countless bootlegs, I know they like segueing songs into each other. The noise build-up ending of this would transition perfectly into 'Killer Parties' and would make for an epic show closer. Just a thought.

    ------------------

    So that's my initial thoughts on each track. I know at times it seemed like I was being pretty negative, especially at the beginning, but as my teacher used to say, that's just 'constructive criticism.' I love this band, and I really like this record; in time I'm sure I'll grow to love it.

    My main criticisms as a whole are I'd be worrying that it strayed a little bit into 'soft rock' territory, at times it can even sound a little cheesy. I've heard comments that it's overproduced however I'm not really a tech, head so statements like that mean a limited amound to me. I will say that it sounds about as 'polished' as other Hold Steady records, but I can see people's problems with some of the things that have been added *cough We Can Get Together cough*.

    I think it's overall probably just a better record than 'Stay Positive', although Stay Positive's high points were much higher (Slapped Actress, Constructive Summer) than anything on this one.

    Like 'Stay Positive', this album ends extremely well, the last 3 tracks are amazing.

    Obviously, as it's The Hold Steady there will no doubt be a lot of B-sides/bonus tracks/whatever to come. As with every set of these extra tracks so far, there's been the frustrating argument that some of them are better than tracks that actually made it on the record ('40 Bucks' and 'Two-Handed Handshake' should definitely have been on Stay Positive, 'Cheyenne Sunrise' was better than '... Discouraged' and the only thing stopping 'Ask Her For Adderall' getting on that record surely was it's similarities to 'Constructive Summer') and I wonder if that'll be the case with 'Heaven Is Whenever'. Some titles have already been announced, and on some of the recent live bootlegs some of the tracks have been played and they sound pretty good.

    So yeah, in summary, my initial impressions are pretty positive. It's a good album, and in time I'm sure I'll come to regard it as a great album. After all, it's The Hold Steady, and in my eyes at least, they can't do much wrong.

    Best tracks: Barely Breathing, Our Whole Lives, A Slight Discomfort.