The Hold Steady: “Heaven Is Whenever”


The Hold Steady are a strange case – on the one hand, they are true rock’n’roll classicists, devotees of the vibrating string and skin. On the other hand, there is something distinctly 21st century about their tales of dissipated, disaffected, drug-addled youth.

I thought they had peaked back in 2005 with Separation Sunday. That album really snuck up on me with its combination of crunchy riffs and the uniquely nasal instrument of vocalist Craig Finn, the love child of Bruce Springsteen and Randy Newman. Not to mention the lyrics, highly literate and thoughtful without beating you over the head about it. Separation Sunday was a concept album about a lost generation struggling with faith and looking for redemption, and as awful as that sounds, it worked. Neither of the Hold Steady’s albums since then – Boys and Girls in America and Stay Positive – grabbed me much, so my expectations for this one were low.

Surprise, surprise – right from the opening notes of slide guitar, Heaven Is Whenever announces itself as a new kind of Hold Steady album. Not a complete departure, just an evolution, a little more sophisticated without sacrificing the gut-level oomph that they do so well. It moves smoothly from song to song without sacrificing momentum, and though there’s no obvious narrative through-line like there was in Separation Sunday, it seems as much as anything to be about…well, the Hold Steady. From how they got started:


Happy Belated Vigoda Day

Now that is one damn handsome man.

My old friend Tommy V popped up this morning to remind me that I missed an important holiday yesterday: the 90th birthday of the great, still-not-late Abe Vigoda. Usually 90 seems pretty old, but in this case most people’s reaction is probably something like, “Wow! Abe’s only 90?” After all, he’s been making a living by looking like he’s on death’s door since the mid-70s. But the joke’s on us; Abe will probably outlive us all, roaming a post-apocalyptic wasteland with the cockroaches, Keith Richards, and Rudy the blind and deaf Shih-Tzu.

In honor of the occasion, here are a few more Vigoda factoids:

  • According to NNBD, “his first big break was a small, occasionally recurring role on Dark Shadows, the 1960s low-budget haunted house soap opera.” This was news to me – I couldn’t find much in the way of detail, other than the fact that he had played two different characters on three episodes – but it seems entirely appropriate, given that Abe himself is undead.
  • “Vigoda was born in New York City, the son of Lena (née Moses) and Samuel Vigoda, Jewish immigrants from Russia. His father was a tailor and his brother, Bill Vigoda, was a comic-book artist who drew for the Archie comics franchise and others in the 1940s.” (sez The Wikipedia)
  • Web searches for all things Abe are complicated by the increasing success of the rock band that appropriated his name. I don’t have an official position on whether they deserve to bear the Vigoda name, but based on an admittedly superficial sampling of their music, I am not impressed.
  • According to IMDB, Abe has three new movies coming out soon: Small Town Hero, Mafioso II, and The Driver. Is a major comeback in the works? It seems unlikely; but if you know what’s good for you, you’ll never bet against Abe Vigoda.

Jimi Hendrix: “Valleys of Neptune”

You’d think that after 40 years and numerous posthumous albums, anyone attempting to assemble a collection of unreleased Jimi Hendrix recordings would be scraping the bottom of the barrel. And you wouldn’t be wrong, exactly; very little is new on Valleys of Neptune, released in 2010 by the Experience Hendrix label. “Stone Free,” “Hear My Train a-Comin’,” “Red House,” “Bleeding Heart,” “Lover Man,” and “Sunshine of Your Love” were recorded numerous times and can be heard on the Hendrix BBC sessions album, or the Blues compilation, or various live albums. “Mr. Bad Luck,” “Ships Passing Through the Night,” and “Lullaby for the Summer” are prototypes for the previously released “Look Over Yonder,” “Night Bird Flying,” and “Ezy Rider,” respectively. And the rerecorded version of “Fire” included here is not much different from the original version on Are You Experienced?, just cleaner-sounding and with a slightly extended outro.

Grinderman: “Grinderman 2”

Apparently, when alt-rock/art-rock superstars have their midlife crises, one of the things they do is start a new band that plays loud, guitar-based rock’n’roll. David Bowie had Tin Machine, Julian Cope had Brain Donor, and now Nick Cave has Grinderman, which is basically a stripped-down, four-piece version of the Bad Seeds.

This is actually the second Grinderman album; I never heard the first one because I only check in with what Nick is doing every four years or so. He’s one of these guys who’s so prolific that if I tried to keep up with everything he puts out, I’d have no time for all the important things I have to do, like trim my cats’ claws and watch every episode of Parks & Recreation at least three times. But judging by the song titles on Grinderman (“Get It On,” “No Pussy Blues,” “Go Tell the Women,” “Love Bomb,” etc.), both albums are concerned with the same basic subject matter; and if you don’t know what that subject matter is, read those titles again. Or consider these lyrics from Grinderman 2:

You know they call my baby the Mambo Rider
I cry storms of tears till the rising of the dawn
You know I’m only happy when I’m inside her
I guess that I’ve just loved you for too long
(“Worm Tamer”)