Monday, May 17, 2010

The Hold Steady

A deep undercurrent of solid, straight-forward rock music flows from the northernmost reaches of the Mississippi River in Minneapolis-St Paul, Minn. Over the last several decades, the Twin Cities have produced a disproportionately high crop of good bands – some who've made their way into the heart of the pop-rock mainstream, and others that have not experienced the same degree of commercial success, but nonetheless cultivated devoted fan bases and critical acclaim. Prince and Soul Asylum became household names in the 80's and 90's respectively, while groups like Hüsker Dü, Babes in Toyland and The Replacements found a solid footing in the underground scene. The last of those – the Paul Westerberg-leg Replacements – were perpetually on the verge of breaking through to a larger audience, but never could quite find the right pairing of band stability and radio single to achieve mainstream status. Perhaps that was just as well, given the band's ultimately short shelf life.

Forging head with Minneapolis-inspired Americana rock is The Hold Steady, and their fifth album, Heaven is Whenever. Lead singer/songwriter Craig Finn channels his Rust Belt-flavored Catholicism through filters of Springsteen, Elvis Costello, The Clash, and yes, The Replacements, to concoct a gritty, lyrically-driven sound, much like Brian Fallon's approach in the Gaslight Anthem, albeit with a bit less punk and more Bob Seger. Unlike the band's previous efforts – such as 2006's Boys and Girls in America and Stay Positive, released two years later – Heaven is Whenever does not charge the listener from the outset with a flowing stream of heartland narrative and guitar crunch. Rather, Finn and his three mates ease-in slowly, with another ode to their hometown in "The Sweet Part of the City," positioning the scene on Hennepin Avenue in the album's first line. The ballad is much closer to Seger's own "Mainstreet," featuring slide guitar work and shout-outs to parish-driven neighborhoods like St. Theresa's. Its a tableaux any resident of Cleveland, Detroit or Buffalo could recognize.

The collection builds steam more gradually more than any other Hold Steady offering, truly hitting its stride at the fifth track, "Rock Problems." The driving cut, featuring guitar harmonies at its middle, could have easily found a home on Costello's 1978 LP, This Year's Model, with a call-and-answer chorus and nearly-clean riffs yielding its pulse. It is followed-up two tracks later with the album's best number, "Hurricane J," with a Rick Springfield Jesse's Girl-chord progression, perhaps a nod to the same character name Springfield deployed in 1984. It's catchy, loud and among of the most pop-friendly tunes they've done.

Meanwhile, sandwiched in between the two rockers is perhaps Finn's most beautiful effort with the band, "We Can Get Together," which also spawns the album's title. While The Hold Steady could never produce anything described as lilting, the song's acoustic-guitar center and jangly electric overlays is certainly the closest the now four-piece group has ever ventured towards quiet. Drawing-in lyrical references ranging from their Minneapolis predecessors, Husker Du, to Meatloaf's "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," there is no confusing Finn's intentions for the track with lyrics such as, "I only had one single, it was a song about a pure and simple love" and "let it shine down on us all, let it warm us from within."

Among the 10-song collection's other surprises is a clarinet solo at the midway point of "Barely Breathing," given that not all that many clarinets are found in rock music, especially in a lurching account of the happenings at a late-night rock club. Ben Folds' "Stephen's Last Night in Town" may be the last time a clarinet was featured so prominently.

As solid as Heaven is Whenever is, it does suffer from the recent departure of pianist/keyboardist Franz Nicolay, who left the band amicably before the record to pursue other interests. Although piano, organ and keyboard parts supplied by Dan Neustadt can be detected on various tracks, none feature the instruments as prominently as Nicolay's, such as "Party Pit" from Boys and Girls in America or "Constructive Summer" off of Stay Positive, where his work drew the band closer to the powerful groups fronted by Springsteen or Seeger. Nicolay's contributions also offered some oft-needed musicality and variation to the group's more unadorned foundation, and that influence is missed here.

Come for: "Rock Problems"
Stay for: "Hurricane J"
You'll be surprised by "We Can Get Together"

Monday, May 3, 2010

The New Pornographers

The phrase "indie-rock supergroup" is an oxymoron. How is a band that prides itself on independence and unique ideas supposed to be comprised of members of other like-minded groups? Out of that paradox steps Vancouver's The New Pornographers, and their fifth release, Together, available as of today.

First organized in 2000 by former Superconductor and Zumpano frontman Allan Carl (A.C.) Newman, the octet also includes current and former members of Destroyer (co-lead singer and guitarist Dan Bejar), the Immaculate Machine (Kathryn Calder, co-lead vocals, keyboards and accordian), The Evaporators (uber-multi-instrumentalist John Collins) and Limblifter (drummer Kurt Dahle and guitarist Todd Fancey). But Newman's real coup was luring accomplished solo singer/songwriter Neko Case into the fold. Simply put, Case is the best singer in rock music these days, with an immensely powerful set of pipes and the ability to rocket any song to the stratosphere. And yet, while Case's solo material is intelligent, genuine and emotionally powerful, she stays closer to the alt-country approach, which can limit the explosiveness of her vocal talent. Starting with the New Pornographers' first album, Mass Romantic in 2000, the project has allowed her to unleash blistering performances, such as "Letter from an Occupant," "All for Swinging You Around" and "The Bleeding Heart Show." Note how, in the latter of these selections, Case takes over focal duties from Newman at the song's midpoint and transforms the theretofore mid-tempo ballad into a melee with only a single line of lyrics ("we have arrived...too late, to play the Bleeding Heart Show").

It is along these lines that the group presents Together, not deviating from the general framework that has brought the band this far: craft irresistibly hooky power pop gems, introduce some George Martin-meets-David Gilmour studio wizardry, and spread the lead vocals among Bejar, Caldwell, Case and Newman. Not surprisingly, the collection's best tune is its first single, the Case-fronted, acoustic guitar-driven number, "The Crash Years." The track's chorus comes quickly and laden with vocal harmonies and monstrous hooks. In quintessential New Pornographers fashion, it'll have you whistling in no time, aided, of course, by a keyboard riff mimicking the famous whistling part in Bridge Over the River Kwai.

The ear candy is not spared elsewhere on the 13-song effort. Newman's opening number, "Moves," likewise features punchy keyboards and organs, along with crunching Sloan-style guitar riffs. And the group's communal songwriting approach has yet to find a gang vocal it can resist, as heard in "Your Hands (Together)" – a likely set opener on their forthcoming tour – and the Kathryn Caldwell-led "Sweet Talk, Sweet Talk." Meanwhile, late-album offering "Valkyrie in the Roller Disco" introduces a quirky sensibility befitting its offbeat title, featuring a banjo-and-piano accompaniment that's interestingly subdued for a New Pornographers production.

Still, while Together is generally an impressive collection of very listenable and foot-tapping numbers, its also not their pinnacle. Initially, it's not all that noticeably better than their previous recordings. There are no dominant performances like "Sing Me Spanish Techno" or "The New Face of Zero and One" from previous albums that could startle a new listener to the band with their sheer power. The band's lyrics seem to allude to this in "Your Hands (Together)," saying "you can only cover so much territory, of course." Moreover, my lowest degree of interest in the group has always been Bejar's vocals, which account for about a quarter of their total output. While he may a talented songwriter and a valued instrumentalist, I cannot abide the tenor of his voice, which could only be generously described as singing. This talk-to-beat style, with a Ziggy Stardust androgyny without Bowie's suaveness, appears on the Together tracks "Jenny Silver Dollar," "If You Can't See My Mirrors" and "Daughters of Sorrow." While these might be solid works of songwriting not out of step with the rest of the band's work – the latter of these featuring a nice They Might Be Giants-style horns – if the listener can't cozy-up to the singer's cadence and tone, it can be futile, as it is in my case.

Nonetheless, Together is a respectable effort from a set of performers that Newman can orchestrate into a cohesive sound, and which will produce a good handful of tracks that can be staples of their live shows.

Come for: "The Crash Years"
Stay for: "Your Hands (Together)"
You'll be surprised by: "Valkyrie in the Roller Disco"