Monday, January 3, 2011

Give Me Back My Keys!

I've just spent the last couple days grousing and griping about bands I used to love changing for the worse, usually for apparently commercial reasons.  Of course, sometimes it's not about that at all; sometimes bands just evolve from something we care deeply about into something we don't, and vice versa.  As it turns out, there were two releases this year that fit this description pretty well, one vice and one versa.

A friend of mine has been an avid Against Me! supporter for a while now, and having the infectious love of things she has, I tried to let her talk me into it.  In the end, I just couldn't do it: the lead singer couldn't sing, the songs were all angry but hookless, and it just didn't do anything for me.  However, as I've gone into here before, 2007's New Wave bushwhacked me with a full-blown assault of genius melodies, hooks and choruses.  Hooking up with Butch Vig clearly helped, but Tom Gabel had also started to learn to sing, so that the rough edges now sounded more like grace notes than false ones.  This type of change unsurprisingly alienated many of their old fans, with only the punkiest songs seeming to please them.  For my part, though, I had finally found something to love in their sound, and I was intrigued by where they would go next.

If you've been here for a while, or even just spoken to me about music in the past couple years, you'll probably nod your head silently as I declare my love for the Hold Steady one more time.  They fuse a bar band aesthetic with a love of classic rock and the lyrics-as-short-stories of lead singer Craig Finn, hitting three rather large sweet spots for me.  Each of their first three albums got better, especially with the addition on Separation Sunday of keyboardist Franz Nicolay, culminating in the classic Boys and Girls in America.  Then Stay Positive exhibited a restlessness with the formula, and before their next release Nicolay left the band, leaving many fans to wonder just how much of a change was coming.

This year saw the release of the next records by each band, and neither was quite what I would have expected.  Against Me!'s White Crosses brought Vig back to the producer's chair, but it also brought Gabel's complete reformation as a singer, along with a new love of keyboard and piano.  The album is thirty-six minutes of undeniable singalongs, never toning back the intensity and emotions of the songs, even while showing a polish and songwriting ability I hadn't seen from them before.  "Because of the Shame" is their piano-driven homage to the Boss' "Thunder Road," and "Spanish Moss," the song I listened to more than any other this year, opens with a "Baba O'Riley" inspired guitar intro before the drums pound and the 'whoa oh's' come calling.  "You just need to find some place to get away," Gabel sings over one of those indomitable guitar lines that stays with you for days.  Such a great, straightforward and big-sounding song, it's the rare track that I never really tire of.  It's followed up by the album's punkest moment, the sub-two minute "Rapid Decompression," a thrown bone for all the former fans/current haters, but awesome on its own.

Heaven is Whenever finds the Hold Steady similarly trying out a newer, more polished sound, but to less generous effect.  The most glaring issue is the overly slick production.  I get the sense from the band's interviews that they were excited to refine their sound, but a large part of their charm was the meat and potatoes approach to their already great songs.  Here, it's like they wrote and recorded everything, then went back and fastidiously added unnecessary little touches, like overwrought strings or the audible strumming of acoustic guitars high up in the mix.  And while the piano is still around, it's no longer in the majority of songs, and just doesn't have the same energy.  Now, this isn't to say there's nothing good here.  This is still a kick ass band, and in Tad Kubler, they have one of the great, underrated guitarists out there.  On the best songs, like "The Weekenders" and "Rock Problems," he still gets to lead the way, and the new approach either doesn't matter or actually adds an interesting layer.  The former opens with atmospheric guitars and an insistent bass drum before the chorus brings that old Hold Steady guitar sound; the latter is a silly but undeniable romp, the most overtly old school track on the record, and the pre-chorus is probably my favorite moment on the album.  Craig Finn is still in fine lyrical form, so that part of their appeal is unchanged, but he's gone almost completely over to singing, as opposed to his former shout/talk/sing hybrid that brought so much urgency.

The obvious issue is the departure of Nicolay.  Upon leaving, he said he didn't think there was any way to improve upon the big, anthemic rock songs the band specialized in, and he wanted to try something new.  The band seems to agree, but the result has only shown that they should have stuck to what they knew best.  Some of the anthemic songs actually sound like they're trying too hard, and that makes me sad, like they've forgotten something that used to feel like second nature.  Heaven is Whenever isn't a bad album by any means; softer, less typical songs like "The Sweet Part of the City" and "Barely Breathing" are actually pretty good, but they're not from the band I know.  As a rock record, it's perfectly enjoyable, but as a Hold Steady album, it leaves me very disappointed, more inclined to reach back to the early era classics than sing along.

In an interesting twist, when I saw Against Me! in August they had a keyboardist to play the new songs, and I swore I recognized him, even from the relative nosebleed of where I sat.  Then, the cameras focused on him, and none other than Franz Nicolay and his signature mustache/hat combo were filling the Greek screens.  It made sense, of course; Against Me! now sounded more like the Hold Steady than the Hold Steady did, so why not get the master of driving keys and infectious back-up vocals?  I did wonder, however, if his departure had more to do with interpersonal strife, since this was more of a lateral than a drastic step forward.  One band's loss is another's gain, however brief (apparently he was only touring and not made a permanent member), so I guess the reasons ultimately don't matter.

What I'm left with is a mixed bag that mostly evens itself out.  One band has gone in a direction I don't like all that much, while another has made themselves more appealing to me while alienating many former supporters.  I guess it gives me some perspective on both sides, but screw that--I want my bar band back.

No comments: