Your New Music Report! (May 2010)

By Chris Moore:

Well, it seems that I won’t be able to post the set-list for tonight’s Pearl Jam concert in real-time after all, due to either issues with the site or my WordPress app or both.

Instead, let’s talk new music!

It’s been two weeks since the first third of the year flashed by, and it’s been quite a year for new music.  Perhaps my surprise and excitement is due to the fact that I didn’t have high hopes for this year.  After all, nearly all of my favorite bands have put out music very recently (i.e. the past two years).  And yet there have been more than enough new releases to pick from these past four months.

Some artists, like Ringo Starr and Jakob Dylan, continue to put out music that lives in the shadow of their greater efforts of the past.  Others, like the Barenaked Ladies and Spoon, have somehow managed to create some of the best music of their lengthy careers.  Still others, such as She & Him and Broken Bells, are creating music and casting the shadows that future efforts will need to live up to.

This year has certainly had its hits and its misses, and it got off to an eclectic but ho-hum start, but I have already been hooked by five outstanding records.  Now, only one of these has received my five-star stamp of approval (All in Good Time), but the other four are a full four stars without question (Broken Bells, Volume Two, Heaven is Whenever, & Sea of Cowards).

The latter four albums represent an interesting range of sounds and influences.  Broken Bells have found a compelling sound by blending the rock basics with some more experimental, synthesized sounds.  She & Him give you the eery feeling that you’ve stepped into the past without actually sounding dated.  The Hold Steady have put together the best all-out rock and roll album of the year, to be sure.  And the Dead Weather present an out of control frenzy of rock, this time around with more single-worthy songs and considerably better continuity as an album.

In the midst of the outstanding and the forgettable are some interesting records.  Take American VI: Ain’t No Grave, Johnny Cash’s final posthumous release of new material.  It certainly doesn’t stand up to IV or even V, but it is such a beautiful that includes a perfect closing track for his long and storied career.  Steven Page’s first solo effort incited extreme reactions from most fans and critics, divisions in both categories respectively hating it for being so unlike his other music and loving it for… well, the same reason, I suppose.  As for me, I’ve very much enjoyed A Singer Must Die, although I rarely listen to it in the car and I’m very anxious to hear his first solo album proper, which should arrive later this year.  (And, to be fair, I downgraded it from four to three and a half stars in deference to what a full four stars should really represent.)

If you haven’t been listening to the first albums of the new decade, then you’ve been missing some real gems.  And, if you’ve missed my reviews along the way, I’ve compiled them below for your reference.  I’ve even translated my “Yes, No, or Maybe So” reviews to the standard five star system for your ease.   I’ve been listening constantly to the four listed as “coming soon” — between rounds of BnL, She & Him, and the Wallflowers, that is — and I’ll have those reviews posted throughout the next two weeks.

New Albums, 2010:

Y Not (Ringo Starr) – 2.5 stars

Transference (Spoon) – 3.5 stars

Realism (Magnetic Fields) – 2.5 stars

Heligoland (Massive Attack) – 2 stars

A Singer Must Die (Steven Page with the Art of Time Ensemble) – 3.5 stars

American VI: Ain’t No Grave (Johnny Cash) – 3 stars

Broken Bells (Broken Bells) – 4 stars

All in Good Time (Barenaked Ladies) – 5 stars

Volume Two (She & Him) – 4 stars

Women & Country (Jakob Dylan) – 2.5 stars

Forgiveness Rock Record (Broken Social Scene) – coming soon!

Court Yard Hounds (Court Yard Hounds) – coming soon!

Heaven is Whenever (The Hold Steady) – 4 stars

Sea of Cowards (The Dead Weather) – 4 stars

High Violet (The National) – 3.5 stars

The Hold Steady’s “Heaven is Whenever” – The Weekend Review

By Chris Moore:

RATING: 4 / 5 stars

The Hold Steady: Keeping riff-driven rock songs relevant since 2004.

To be fair, I’ve only heard one album — 2010’s Heaven is Whenever — but the Hold Steady certainly make a strong case for deserving that aforementioned title on the merits of this most recent release alone. More to the point, the question foremost on my mind as I ran through my second, third, and on through to my tenth listens to this album (in a four day span) was: how has this band managed to release four albums that I’ve never heard of?

Oh, right… Rock music doesn’t “sell” like it used to. I forgot for a moment there.

Honestly, I was nonplussed for much of my first listen. I had put the album on low while talking in the car; what I did hear sounded like the middle-of-the-road derivative drivel that passes for contemporary popular “rock” music.

I’m not name-dropping here, but you can imagine…

When I finally had the mind to crank the volume up, I very clearly heard a band that is not attempting to be something they aren’t. Sure, there are inflections of the Counting Crows and Tom Petty as well as Weezer and the occasional hats-off nod to hip hop dispersed throughout this record, yet although I feel like I should be able to draw more concrete observations in the vein of “The Hold Steady sound like _______”…

Well, I haven’t gotten that far.

And why would I want to? Reviewers — myself included — have a way of breaking down albums and songs to such a degree that, once dismantled, they simply can’t be put back together and enjoyed.

The Hold Steady's

The Hold Steady's "Heaven is Whenever" (2010)

The defining feature of Heaven is Whenever is the tension between the obvious and the subtle, the directly stated and the implied. Namely, these are not the simple, superficial songs that they may appear to be to the casual listener. And it is truly refreshing to read through the lyrics booklet without losing respect for the music.

Kiran Soderqvist of Sputnik Music nails their tone when he writes that frontman Craig Finn “has a way with words and much of their music hints at something much more calculated than bar-light jamming.”

On this record, the lyrics accomplish much of the hinting.

If you’re listening for a Bob Dylan, or even a Jakob Dylan, then you’re liable to be disappointed. But if you’re drawn to the sorts of lines and phrases that will leave you imagining what they might refer to (“There was that whole weird thing with the horses” or “There were a couple pretty crass propositions…” in “The Weekenders”), if you like your allusions served often and served bluntly (“Don’t it suck about the succubi?” in “A Slight Discomfort”), if you’re fond of your metaphors (“I’m from a place with lots of lakes. But sometimes they get soft in the center. And the center is a dangerous place…” in “Soft in the Center”), and if you fancy wordplay (“Jock Jills go for jumping Jacks” in “Our Whole Lives”), then you won’t be disappointed.

Topically, the album is thought-provoking if you’ll let it be, though it’s vague enough — and paced quickly enough — that you’ll never have to think to enjoy these songs.

Upon further consideration, there is more beneath the surface. To begin with, heaven may be the most oft-used word on this record, employed as a metaphor for a beautiful, peaceful relationship in “We Can Get Together,” the lyrics of which provided the album title. Earlier, heaven is what the situation in “The Smidge” feels like, and “Heaven Tonight” makes leaving a party feel “really right” in “Rock Problems.” Later, heaven is the topic for discussions about “hypotheticals” in the superb lead-off single “Hurricane J.”

Not surprisingly, religious iconology oozes forth throughout, as Finn sings about praying on numerous occasions, saints are mentioned repeatedly (specifically, as well as figuratively, as in “Hurricane J” when Jesse’s parents “…didn’t name her for a saint. They named her for a storm”), the Catholic confessional is alluded to in “Our Whole Lives,” and the 1980 Jim Carroll band record Catholic Boy is referenced. Clearly, Heaven is Whenever turns to this thematic underpinning, both seriously and dismissively, and whether intended or not, the album provides a wealth of provocative hooks for the listener.

This is not to say that the Hold Steady’s latest release is a spiritual record or some sort of religious statement. There are many other similarly provocative statements here, such as the advice in “Soft in the Center” that “You can’t get every girl. You’ll get the ones you love the best. You won’t get every girl. You’ll love the ones you get the best. Kid, you can’t kiss every girl…” Every young man confronts this conflict in his programming, that eternal struggle between man as the primitive hunter/gatherer driven by instinct/attraction, and man as the productive member of a society that values monogamy and stability.

There are lighter connections to be made here, as well. For instance, speaking as a life-long dork and sometimes-nerd, I had a visceral reaction to the refrain in “Our Whole Lives” that finds Finn proclaiming, “We’re good guys, but we can’t be good every night. We’re good guys, but we can’t be good our whole lives.”

If you really listen, Heaven is Whenever has much to offer up both lyrically and musically. If you’d rather not, then you’ll still find this album a fun rock record.

And, as a result, I’m left wondering why I didn’t start listening four albums ago.