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"