Album review

Barroom rock with some brains

May 3, 2010

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The Hold Steady, ‘Heaven is Whenever’
ESSENTIAL “Soft in the Center’’

One of the risks in listening too attentively to a lyricist like Craig Finn is that his songs are charged with so many beer-sodden maxims you can get a contact buzz rummaging around for a sort of thesis. “You could probably do anything if you could just get yourself right,’’ he sings on “Soft in the Center,’’ the standout track from the Brooklyn band’s new album. Elsewhere he warbles, “We’re good guys, but we can’t be good our whole lives.’’

Talk about playing to your crowd. “Heaven Is Whenever’’ is the type of self-deprecating solipsism tailor-made for fans of barroom rock still waiting around for Huey Lewis to finish an MFA program. They’re the people who’ve elevated the Hold Steady to “only band that matters now’’ status. In this reliably anthemic package it’s also unabashed fun.

The departure of keyboard player Franz Nicolay prior to the recording of this album sent fanboys into a fit. But while his absence is felt in the guitar-forward arrangements, “Heaven’’ is yet another collection of loquaciously gritty pop-rock songs about bad girls and the bad boys who love them. Finn’s dexterous, shredded croon is in top form on “Hurricane J’’ and “The Weekenders,’’ songs that build up a gang-vocal momentum. Burners like “Rock Problems’’ continue to repackage classic-rock populism for the boozy bibliophile set.

With “Heaven Is Whenever,’’ it seems unlikely that the Hold Steady will again change how we talk about modern rock, but when a band has already framed the parameters of the debate, it doesn’t necessarily have to. (Out tomorrow) -- LUKE O’NEIL