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Yet to take Hold

The Hold Steady

Heaven Is Whenever

Posted 11:08am on Wednesday, May. 05, 2010

The Hold Steady is the best American rock band you're not listening to.

That's a bold statement, sure -- but one that Craig Finn and his bandmates have been backing up for the better part of a decade.

Finn's exquisite hand with lyrics -- name another young songwriter who can synthesize fumbled lives and romantic regret as deftly -- is augmented by a group of musicians who find inspiration in the ramshackle sound of the E Street Band, Hüsker Dü and countless other garage-rock aspirants. It's a glorious paradox; messy, complicated themes examined within the context of straightforward, engaging rock songs.

Again, why don't you own all their albums?

The Hold Steady's Heaven Is Whenever marks a departure for the band -- and not just of the band's longtime keyboardist, Franz Nicolay. The band is now a quartet, but no less potent, and Whenever, produced by Dean Baltulonis and the band, is a startlingly reflective work, even by Finn's standards. Things are pensive from the beginning and, although there are a few bursts of up-tempo release (Hurricane J juxtaposes a troubled young woman and natural disaster), the prevailing mood is one of nostalgia and melancholy: "I still spin that single/But it don't sound that simple," yearns a wistful Finn on We Can Get Together, the album's luminous centerpiece.

Compact at 41 minutes and 10 tracks, Whenever also remembers the cardinal rule of rock: leave listeners wanting more. It's a further testament to Finn's way with words that fans can spend endless hours unpacking his songs and uncovering deeper nuances. A tune like Barely Breathing, with its haunting chorus, becomes an urgent elegy for music's slow drift into oblivion. (Look no further than the line "Showing up at shows like you care about the scene still/Where were you when the blood spilled?")

Giving a damn has always been Finn's reason for being, as a person and a songwriter. Whether it's supporting indie bands or finding the girl of one's dreams, the Hold Steady does nothing in half measures -- and certainly not for bright lights or big glories.

All the more reason why they deserve to be a household name. As Finn sings, repeatedly, in the album opener Sweet Part of the City, "We like to play for you." They simply plug in and plow ahead, and if the band happens to create some of the greatest rock music currently found in the lower 48, so be it.

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