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3.6 out of 5 stars16
3.6 out of 5 stars
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3.5 stars

Craig Finn's belief in the redemptive power of Rock n Roll is so infectious that you want the Hold Steady to succeed at everything they do and continue to proudly proclaim them as the best "bar band" in the world. Albums like "Boys and Girls in America" was unafraid of cliché, full of huge high adrenaline anthems and on times reached a fever pitch of Springsteen proportions on songs like the wonderful "First Night" the delirious turbo charged "Stuck between Stations" and the continuing tales of Holly, Gideon and Charlemagne explored on earlier brilliant outings like "Separation Sunday". These were no mere E Street copyists and in Finn they had a great lyricist and the Randy Newman for the teenage experience. Next up was the "Stay Positive" which had its moments but didn't really advance the cause that far and now we have "Heaven is whenever" which is a good album but certainly not a great album.

Clearly the departure of their charismatic keyboard wizard Franz Nicolay has caused a rethink and some of the songs which emerge on this album are real gems. The themes in the songs are slightly more personal but ultimately doomed relationships and ill-advised romances loom large. The opener "Sweet part of the city" does suggest a new direction within the confines of "street scene" ballads and is a true highlight. The ode to the music fan "We can get together" is full of references to bands including Husker Du and Todd Rundgren music and will have crowds singing along at the top of their voices. "Hurricane J" is the Hold Steady "do power pop" and it works in spades, it carries you with is sheer exuberance and is full of Cheap Trick style licks, ditto "Soft in the Center" with its excellent harmonies and echoes of Springsteen.

The long closer "Slight discomfort" is a good reflective piece although its not particularly profound and does miss Nicolay. Then we have songs like "the Smidge" with a riff rolled out so many times before it ought to be given a decent burial. The problem with "Rock Problems" is that we have heard it all before a million times and if this is your first Hold Steady album it will sound great but if not somewhat formulaic and weathered. Take a song like "Weekenders" and if you listen closely it is essentially a rerun of "Chips Ahoy".

The Hold Steady don't have a bad album in them but in terms of their career path they also must decide whether they want to be Oasis or Bruce Springsteen. The Oasis template played out over two brilliant albums but imploded on "Be here now" whereas in terms of the Boss for every "Born to Run" he also recorded a counterpoint like the brilliant "Nebraska" or "Tunnel of Love". There are some suggestions of a new direction on here which should fill us with hope, for the bottom line is that the Hold Steady have now nearly exhausted the riffs and the boy/girls song template. They are by any standards one of the best US bands of recent years and let us hope that the redemptive power of rock n roll provides Finn with further new inspiration.
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on 22 April 2010
I listened to this record twice through, streaming it from the Guardian website last night (It's easy to find the preview there if you want:guardian.co.uk/music). From what I've heard, I'll be pre-ordering it directly.

My first encounter with The Hold Steady was their third album, Boys and Girls in America, and I've seen them pretty recently so while I'm not exactly a die-hard, from the beginning fan, they have made a real impression on me in the last few years.

This is a pretty shallow reflection on the album, as I've not had the chance to listen to it repeatedly, but I will say they seem to have found a way to accomodate the desire to move away from the more bombastic BAGIA sound while keeping the songwriting and energy levels exceptionally high. Since the way they used traditional US rock styles along with sometimes self-consciously naive, sometimes almost arch lyricism is what attracted me to the band in the first place, this album definitely counts as a success to me.

Since Franz Nicolay is no longer playing with the band, we're having to say goodbye to a lot of the twinkling pianos and organ chops, along with some of the more obviously punk influenced "Woah-oh-woah-oh" singalongs. Sadly missed, but the understated keys and pedals steel playing make up for it.

All in all, an excllent record from the two listens I've given it, and I'm looking forward to getting physical copy and getting to know it as well as BAGIA
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on 31 July 2013
I'm looking at these reviews and I'm thinking are we listening to the same album?

I had all the hold steady albums but I left this one til last and I was worried that their streak of 4 fantastic albums would run dry.
As soon as the opening track folk style guitar plays you know that it's not going to be the same as the other albums.
Franz and his mustache is sorely missed but they make up for it with a range of different instruments and backing vocals.

You didn't think they could churn out the same album over and over and we wouldn't get sick of it, I think this is possibly the biggest risk a band can take experimenting with genres and styles but it's the best bands that can pull it off.
Song Highlights
>Soft in the Center - A real fantastic tune, the chorus is key here. A Real singalong chorus and perfect bit of simple advice "you can't get every girl".
>Rock Problems - This is as rocky as they get on the album. Giving us our dose of Barre Chords and you know what I think we can sympathize.
>We Can Get Together - Touching, beautiful tribute to drummer Matthew Fletcher, Craig shows his soft underbelly. This is easily as good as 'First Night'; Heavenly.
>Hurricane J - A new character is introduced to us Jessie. I don't know what about the song makes it click but it's an instant hit.
>Barely Breathing - Containing a clarinet solo so you know it's good. The lyrics are funny, beats are funky and you can't help but smile when Craig Finn asks "Who the hells the blue guy?" when he is given a pamphlet of goddess Krishna.
>A Slight Discomfort - What a way to end the album, great lyrics, excellent song but I especially like the way it concludes the album, pounding drums and piano eventually fading into static.

Lyric Highlights
>Heaven is whenever we can get together
Lock your bedroom door, and listen to your records - We can Get Together
>She said the theme of this party is the industrial age, and you came in dressed like a train wreck - The Weekenders
>"And You say you're a princess, But I remain unconvinced, I've seen the guys that you've been with, They don't much like princes" A Slight Discomfort
>You can't tell people what they want to hear if you also want to tell the truth
- Soft in the Center

This is a truly incredible album, the lyrics are less metaphorical but more relatable which has it's merits, the songs are relatable and that's something they haven't achieved before. As Craig Finn once sung "our songs our singalong songs" and now they truly are.
So yeah the sounds a little more 'mainstream' but they still rock it out, the lyrics are still better than 99.99999999% of other songs being released today. Maybe we've set the bar to high. But if you compare other albums released in 2010 the lyrics are better, the music is richer and the singing has more grit than ever.

It's different for sure but that's a good thing, this means the bands here to stay because if it's a change in the product that means they've got fresh ideas and it's nice to see their creative juices flowing.
This may take 3 listens or so to get into all the tracks but listen to it with an open mind.
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on 21 April 2010
Another slice of Americana, Hold Steady style. After their last effort which, to be brutally frank, was a retrograde step, they push all the right buttons. Craig Finn rasp: check. Chiming guitars: check. Inspirational choruses: ditto. Catch it now - free, in its entirety, on guardian website.
(30/03/2011) God knows how long ago I wrote this review but it still holds up. Still got the link to the guardian webpage for a free listen. Interesting to find out if anyone else followed suit.
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on 9 June 2010
Much preferring The Hold Steady's work with keyboards player Franz Nicolay, I was worried when I heard of his departure that the following album would not be up to scratch...

However, "Heaven..." has been a pleasant surprise in that respect, keeping most of the stylistic features that the 2 Franz albums excelled at. The greater amount of production on this album is noticeable too, and whilst this has led to much of the 'Blogshpere' moaning about them selling out, I actually think the production compliments this batch of songs more than it would have on other albums.

With regards to the songs, this album is a funny one. At times it hits tremendous highs (Soft In The Center, The Weekenders), a few lows (Barely Breathing) and and couple of moments where you can't help but say "meh..." (The Smidge, and apart from its glorious ending, A Slight Discomfort)

But all in all 7 and a half top notch tracks is pretty good, and I'm really gutted that i won't be seeing them live this month - I saw them at Vfest 2008 and they were so good I went out and bought Stay Positive the next day.
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on 14 May 2010
The last studio outing, Stay Positive, closed with the frustrating Slapped Actress: great opening riff but then... More of the same here alas - some promising moments, but this is no Boys and Girls, no Almost Killed me nor Separation Sunday. Live of course, is always a different matter, and maybe performance will transform things. Disappointing.
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on 7 May 2011
i was a big fan of hold steady and Boys and girls is a cracking album full of good tunes. Stay Positive was okay but this is awful. Went to see them on their last tour it says it all they hardly played anything off the album.
I feel the loss of the keyboard player is badly missed and the sound they had on previous albums is now sadly gone.
I don't like anything on this album and having seen them live twice the first brillant the 2nd for this album they were really poor every track was rowdy and it felt as though this will be probably be the last album. Get Boys and Girls but give this a miss.
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on 15 April 2011
Only discovered this band recently after catching one of their songs on the radio and bought 'Stay Positive' on the back of that; it quickly became a regular feature on my CD player. I gobbled up most of their back catalogue and ,though it took me a while to adjust to the less polished, rawer edge of the older offerings, I loved the punked-up Springsteen vibe of the band. Their live CD is one of my musical highlights of the last 5 years.

'Heaven is Whenever' lacks any of the things that captured my attention. The raw-edge of the guitars and roughshod vocals are lost in an over-produced soup that reminds me more of a wannabe Goo Goo Dolls or even Sheryl Crow at times.

While Stay Positive took the sound of the band and polished it but retained the heart of the music this attempt has pushed the sound too far in the wrong direction. It sounds like a band going through the motions and producing music that they themselves don't enjoy. Hugely disappointing.
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on 3 March 2011
This album still has better lyrics than pretty much any band out there, but they are much inferior to all previous albums by the Hold Steady. The Snitch is the best thing here. It would even make inclusion on the Boys and Girls in America album. The Weekenders would probably have just missed the cut. Nothing else is up there at this level. And Boys and Girls in America isn't even their best album. That honour belongs to Separation Sunday - one of the handful of best albums of the last decade. Boys and Girls in America is just a short way behind. Heaven is... has been overhauled sonically. It sounds good, but the depth is just not there. They still hammer out melodic tunes despite the loss of the keyboard player. Maybe Craig Finn needs to turn back to Separation Sunday rather than continuing to move further on in the direction that Boys and Girls set off in.
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on 3 May 2010
After a somewhat disappointing fourth Lp 'Stay Positive', which had just a bit too much going on at times, The Hold Steady get back to doing what they do best. I know that there are times when a band is 'hot' in the music press, and two years ago it was The Hold Steady's turn. Now, of course, they've been around a while and suddenly they are attracting some unfair criticism.
In my view, this Lp is up there with 'Separation Sunday' as them at their hard-rocking best. I don't think the loss of Franz Nicolay has had a detrimental effect on the their sound, on the contrary, it leaves a lot more space in the music for the dynamics of each track to shine through. And 'The Smidge' must be the best thing they've ever done.
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