Wednesday, May 26, 2010

$3 Music Review: The Hold Steady

Okay, the last time we met, I was griping about aging while new young bands keep popping up with newer, better versions of the music I used to listen to.  Now we are going to talk about a band that has been around for a while, aging along with me (although on a parallel track started somewhat later).

Craig Finn, the front man for the Hold Steady will turn 40 next year, and his lyrics, if not his music, is showing signs of someone starting to look behind him at the damn kids and their destructive behavior, which he realizes is not unlike his own at their age. Now he's writing lyrics like, "You ask me not to do it, but you can't control the kids...We used to want it all, now we just want a little bit." If the lyrics have become more wistful, the volume knob is still at eleven.

The Hold Steady's latest album, Heaven is Whenever, is more of the same Springsteen-heavy club rock, even more so without the more playfully inventive stylings of their former keyboardist, Franz Nicolay (for instance, there are no harpsichord solos, such as in "One for the Cutters" from the Stay Positive album).

Reasons to avoid The Hold Steady's Heaven is Whenever:

  1. Through three full listens, I have yet to find a "sing-a-long" song (Call back! from the song "Constructive Summer"! Get it?), such as "Sequestered in Memphis," from Stay Positive.
  2. These songs have very few hooks or memorable melodies - they have all been wrapped around Finn's lyrics almost as a second thought, so that the music seems to have been forced to fit.  Not that that is not the case with all Hold Steady songs to a degree. There are a lot of words there. But here it seems like these lyrics were fitted a little uncomfortably to these club rock anthems.
  3. The lack of hooky songs puts Craig Finn's voice front and center. The Village Voice's Rob Harvilla euphemistically notes that Finn's vocal efforts convey a "melodic disregard." At other times Harvilla likens his style to a carnival barker. Both are accurate.
Reasons to listen to The Hold Steady's Heaven is Whenever multiple times:

Those words. Craig Finn's lyrics are always a highlight.  What a gift of poetry. Here are some snippets from Heaven is Whenever:
There were a couple pretty crass propositions 
There were some bugs in the bars, there was a kid camped out by the coat check
She said the theme of this party's the industrial age
And you came in dressed like a train wreck

I know, right? Or how about this: 

There was that whole weird thing with the horses
I think they know exactly what happened, I don't think it needs any explaining
I'm pretty sure I wasn't your first choice
I think I was the last one remaining

or this: 

Don't it suck about the succubi, the bloodsuckers and the parasites?
They're never funny and they're all so scared to die
All the small talk seems like suicide, the spiderwebs with the legs and eggs and eyes
They creep up from behind

or, finally, this:

That one girl got me cornered in the kitchen, I said I'll do anything but clean
She wants to know what I like being better, a trash bin or an ice machine
Some writer's by the fridge, said he didn't make the gig, wants to know if I was drunk
He said some kids that he knows from the net said the sound kinda sucks

Yes. They play bar band music around these lyrics. That's the beauty and the sadness of it. Sometimes I feel like I should just bind the lyrics in a book, and then read them while listening to Philip Glass.

I'll listen some more, and I suspect that The Captain (although he is out rescuing citizens from themselves today as I am playing these songs on repeat) will enjoy it as well. It is welcome in the Driving With The Captain Playlist. But I don't think it will attain the playlist status of my other Mother's Day Music, or even of their former album, Stay Positive.

Of my new rating system of hot/lukewarm/cold, I'm giving this a Lukewarm.


DT said...

two words on lyrics that trump strange voices:
Colin Meloy

piglet said...

True. The Decemberists, people. Know them.