Friday, May 14, 2010

Heaven Is Whenever

Your Little Hoodrat Friend - The Hold Steady (mp3)

For almost eight minutes into my introduction to The Hold Steady, way back in 2005, I was pretty sure I'd made a mistake.

I'd read a bunch of critical raves about their sophomore album, Separation Sunday, and since I'd just received a bunch of iTunes gift cards for Christmas, I decided to jump out on the limb and buy the album. Sure, :30 into the opening song, "Hornets! Hornets!" made it clear why critics loved 'em, but that song didn't call out to me specifically. It just sounded like a clever band schooled in the ancient arts of classic rock with some talky Lou Reed type on speed at the helm.

But once "Your Little Hoodrat Friend" blew into my earphones, and pretty much for the rest of the album, I felt like I'd finally found a critical darling I could love.

They've since released an additional three albums, including their newest, Heaven Is Whenever.

My suspicion is that the fan base who fell in love with Craig Finn and his G-Street Band of merry men back in 2004 or 2005 started losing their passion with 2008's Stay Positive. That album made it pretty clear that THS had maxed out their indy cred and were looking to break into something bigger. Fans who pride themselves on finding diamonds in the rough don't really get much joy in watching a diamond get polished and cut into something fit for a wedding. For those fans, I imagine Stay Positive was their sign to head for the exits.

Stay Positive was indeed that first baby step attempt at bigger things. But it was just that: a baby step. And babies don't always have a pretty gait when they learn to walk.

Heaven Is Whenever is their second step at hitting a bigger audience, moving up the ladder, becoming one of the very bands they spend all their time writing about, either in direct or indirect references. They dropped their keyboardist, which at first seemed like a foolish move, but once you hear what it does to their sound, it makes a lot of sense. Not that Franz "third-generation Roy Bittan" Nicolay wasn't awesome, 'cuz he totally was. While I can't often tolerate an organ in my rock, I can always find a spot in my rock heart for a band member willing to pound the ivories of a true percussion instrument.

So ditching that dude seemed like a risk, but if their goal was to create music that was more accessible to more people, it paid off. Heaven... is the most likable first-listen THS album ever. And if you're gonna pull in more fans, you can't go expecting people to give you three or four spins before they decide whether to like you.

Creating a friendlier rock album doesn't guarantee it being better, but for me, so far I'm enjoying this as much as their other stuff.

If you're a THS fan, I ask you to stick with them and appreciate that it's not a crime to want to hit the big leagues. Nobody faults Nuke LaLouche for wanting to go to The Show. Maybe The Hold Steady is just a Crash Davis, destined to etch their place in the minor league hall of fame, but don't blame 'em for trying. That's what any band worth its salt should aim for at one point or another.

Should they fail, I'm sure they'll dredge up some more stories about Charlemagne and Holly for you. Hell, Craig Finn might even go back to doing a shit-ton of drugs and stop singing so much. But for now, let the boy try and stay relatively sober and attempt to taste the finer things. If he keeps hanging around at keggers, he's gonna turn into one of those spooky older dudes that everyone calls "Chester the Boozer Loser Molester" when he walks away from the tap.

If you absolutely refuse to pay for an entire album, here's your best songs: "Soft In the Center," "The Smidge," and "Hurricane J." The last one is the heart of the album and the closest THS has ever gotten to arena rock. (No one should be surprised that "arena rock," coming from me, is a compliment.)


Bob said...

Anyone who can write a Meatloaf-style duet love song about two kids who have OD'ed at a concert and meet each other in the "Chill Out Tent" will continue to hold my interest.

John said...

After you've loaned my your copy of Karate Kid, will you burn me all the THS you have?

Anonymous said...

Must be nice to just steal your music from other people.

goofytakemyhand said...

Oasis made a great career out of it.

troutking said...

It's easy to be holier than thou when nobody knows who you are.

troutking said...

I've tried to like the Hold Steady's last two albums because it's the kind of band I should like and I think they have a cool name. But I just can't do it. I think their songs kind of all sound the same---crunchy guitars, quiet interlude, crunchy guitars, repeat. And I don't like his singing--where are the vocal melodies? But I'll try one more time--maybe the new album will change my mind.

Billy said...

@Anonymous -- Are you writing this just on BOTG? Or are you spending your time searching out all music blogs (there's one or two others out there, y'know) to pass inaccurate judgment on the lot of us? I'm curious more than anything. And I hope you're not taking or listening to my "stolen" music.

@John -- Dude, I've got so many artists I'm s'posed to push into your ears and haven't done it yet... I'm sore ashamed. I hope it's not stealing for me to let you hear it.

@Jeff -- I don't think you'll LOVE the new album. I think you'll find it more accessible. But he still can't sing. And if the lead dude can't sing, it's a pretty foolish idea to try and harmonize.

@goofy -- Thanks for the comebacker. I'm jealous of that one.

jed said...

one can tell Goofy has a Zevonian sense of humor. glorious.

Goofy, as soon as i get a new computer, i will make good on my Big Star promise i made so long ago.

BeckEye said...


This is one of those bands that everyone loves but, try as I might, I can NOT get into them. I just can't get past that singer's voice. It makes me want to smash things. Mainly, his face.

BeckEye said...

Also, I think Anonymous might be Lily Allen.

Billy said...

@Beck -- Honestly, I wouldn't expect you to like THS, and I don't mean that as an insult. It's just not a band that falls into your style. Generally speaking (although it's not totally accurate), lovers of American Idol are more likely to be about the vocal quality as opposed to the "Rock je ne sais quois" that allows Bob Dylan to be more critically valued than Dennis DeYoung.

Or, to put it another way, whenever I try watching AI, I'm forced to stop whenever I think about Robert Smith and The Cure. Simon woulda stopped him in the tryouts before he could have finished a verse of "Just Like Heaven."

Thom Anon said...

So long as this vie for more mass appeal doesn't preclude songs about John Cassavetes. Slapped Actress is my Hold Steady jam.