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The Hold Steady expanding its music for wider appeal

Boiled down to its beery, bleary essence, the Hold Steady is all about barfly catharsis, end-credit music for the broken Bud man. Six years after its inception, the Brooklyn quartet still flaunts its love for Born to Run, bad girls and songs that unspool like tragicomic Raymond Carver shorts. They are populists at the tap.

The irony, however, is that Joe Six-Pack has never heard of the Hold Steady. Led by the nerdy, bespectacled Craig Finn, the alt-rockers are enjoyed by an elite indie-loving audience, people who crave the idea of slumming in a dive bar — until it's time to drive home in their Prius.

Perhaps that's why new album Heaven Is Whenever, arriving in stores this Tuesday, is the band's most accessible to date — or at least the one most resembling a radio dial circa 1973. The hooks are sharper; guitars buzz like they're warming up for a rendition of Edgar Winter's Frankenstein; and each cut in the 10-pack dutifully crescendoes to a bittersweet hungover revelation.

If the Hold Steady doesn't attract a wider demographic, it's not for a lack of trying.

Finn loves his domestic suds, but he isn't so buzzed that he hasn't realized his nasally quick-fire patter and hyper-hipsterism are starting to grate. So Heaven Is Whenever is stuffed with all sorts of warm departures, from angelic choirs to klezmer swing to a bottom's-up punk spirit. The clever wordplay could still make the New Yorker fiction page, but Finn often delivers it without his pinched bite.

A hard Stonesian shuffle morphs into a proggy synth-and-guitar duet on The Smidge; for all the Boss in the tape deck, the Hold Steady knows its Boston, too. The kudzu beauty of The Sweet Part of the City (sample ripe lyric: "St. Theresa showed up wearing see through / It was standard issue") is laced with Tom Petty's Southern accents; it might be the loveliest thing the group has recorded.

The Weekenders, with its puckish opening line — "There was that whole weird thing with the horses" — has the prickly, life-is-now feel of Achtung-vintage U2. More irony: The Hold Steady is a postmodern bar band that now longs to rock your local arena.

For all the diversions, the group eventually comes back to sating its Inner Bruce — albeit Springsteen with a degree at MIT. On the penultimate Our Whole Lives, with its driving guitars, charging pianos and Finn spitting words with a whiny snarl, the Hold Steady stars at an egghead mixer, explaining what it was like to mix with the hoi polloi: "We're good guys, but we can't be good every night."

Sean Daly can be reached at sdaly@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life column runs every Sunday in Floridian.

Review

The Hold Steady, Heaven Is Whenever (Vagrant) Grade: B+

Sean Daly's Pop Life: This one's for the girls! Our music critic highlights the upcoming Lilith Fair and reviews new music from the Court Yard Hounds, Mary J. Blige and Regina Spektor on Page 2E in today's Floridian section.

Tom Petty gets his 'Mojo' working

Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers won't release new album Mojo until June 15, but the buzz is building. The band's first studio record in eight years is supposedly blues-based, jammy and stuffed full of Mike Campbell's guitar theatrics. From the sound of recently released single First Flash of Freedom (not that Petty really does "singles" anymore), the buzz should also be that the album is totally trippy, '70s-stuck and influenced by Traffic's The Low Spark of High Heeled Boys. To hear First Flash of Freedom — which my colleague Colette Bancroft smartly describes as Petty in "Mad Hatter mode" — go to Pop Life online at blogs.tampabay.com/popmusic. Oh, and remember: After tinkering with tour dates — and rescheduling a Mother's Day stop in Tampa — Petty & Co. will now be at the St. Pete Times Forum on Sept. 16. Go to www.sptimesforum.com for ticket information.

Sean Daly, Times pop music critic

The Hold Steady expanding its music for wider appeal 05/01/10 [Last modified: Saturday, May 1, 2010 6:13pm]
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