When they began in 2005, the Hold Steady set out to be the best bar band in the world. Over the course of four albums, they have steadily grown from a buzzed-about indie group playing tiny Brooklyn clubs to a world-traveling group that headlines festivals and fills theaters.
Though the Hold Steady traditionally put out an album a year, 2008's Stay Positive kept them on the road, where they visited Australia for the first time, played a massive number of festivals and opened dates for Dave Matthews Band and Counting Crows in Europe. It broke up their annual-LP pace for their fifth album, Heaven Is Whenever, which hit shelves Tuesday (May 4), but the extra time helped make the new album the group's "most musical," according to frontman Craig Finn.
Heaven Is Whenever is indeed the most dynamic album the Hold Steady have put out, with some new guitar sounds and plenty of nods to country and folk music. And Finn's trademark speak-singing has been dialed back in favor of a classic-rock croon that is one part Bruce Springsteen, one part Paul Westerberg, one part Morrissey.
It was no accident. "Every time, we try to make a record that is a little more musical," Finn said. "I think by singing, it connects vocals to music a little more. Some of it is just being more confident. Some of it is the opportunity to play literally hundreds and hundreds of shows and being on a microphone. I can certainly sing better than I could when we started the band."
"He's being modest," lead guitarist Tad Kubler added. "He sang his ass off on this record."
One thing that didn't change on Heaven Is Whenever is the continued mythology that Finn began laying out way back on the band's debut, Almost Killed Me. "It gives you a world to run around in, and when you have a lyric that references an old song, the people paying the most attention kind of get a little reward for that," Finn said. "It's like an inside joke. So you're making this world for us and for the fans."
But even though the makeup has shifted (they lost keyboardist Franz Nicolay and added new ivory tickler Dan Neustadt and a third guitarist named Steve Selvidge) and Finn sings more, it's still the same band with the same beating heart at its core. "When we finished it, everybody kind of took a break from it for a little while, and when we came back to it, everybody thought it sounded different," Kubler said of the album. "But now that we've spent time with it, it doesn't seem wildly different. We made some deliberate decisions to record in a different way. But it's still the same guys doing the same stuff. We wanted to make a more dynamic record, and I hope we did that.
"If you had to make a really grand statement about this album," Kubler added, "out of all of our records, this one is the most current."
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