The hottest music from Chicago & beyond

Tag: the hold steady

The Ten Best Concerts of 2017

Just like an album or a song, a truly great live show can change your life. Unlike an album or song, live shows are a communal experience that only exist for a brief moment in time before they become a distant memory. That’s why it’s so important to be as present as possible when you’re at a venue or music festival, to keep that memory locked inside your brain instead of locked inside your phone. Of course I’m as guilty as the next person for taking photos during a show (see all the examples below), but I do my best to only take a few and then put the device away.

Having said that, 2017 marked my busiest and most exciting concertgoing year to date. According to calculations, I attended shows on 71 days this year, and that’s not including the insanity of multi-day festivals such as the Pitchfork Music Festival, Lollapalooza, and Riot Fest. When all is said and done, my best guesstimation is that I saw 167 performances total, which takes opening acts and festival sets into account. So yeah, a lot of live music. It’s not nearly as much as the 500+ shows NPR’s Bob Boilen has pulled off in recent years, but I’d like to think it’s a solid amount for somebody that also has to maintain an active work and social life (not saying Bob Boilen doesn’t have either of those, but he arguably has more…flexibility).

Needless to say, it was tough choosing only ten performances from 2017 to highlight. Then again, this list could easily have been the ten best live shows I attended at the Empty Bottle this year, since they hosted an incredible array of big name bands and artists vastly underplaying at their tiny venue in celebration of their 25th anniversary. Instead, things are just a little more diverse than that, focusing on the moments that really stood out to me for one reason or another. Some were emotionally moving. Others were genuinely surprising or fun. The thrill of discovering something new, and the pleasure of hearing a set list comprised of many of your favorite songs. There was so much to love, and it’s my sincerest hope that you are inspired by this list to check out more live music no matter where you live. After all, science says that regularly attending concerts makes you happier.

Album Review: Craig Finn – Clear Heart, Full Eyes [Vagrant]

You know and love Craig Finn through his role as frontman for The Hold Steady. Now, he’ll be taking on a new role: solo artist! Yes, for those of you concerned about the state of The Hold Steady, fear not, for this is just a side project that won’t affect the band – at least not directly. The entire reason Finn has chosen to go it alone was less because the rest of the band wasn’t ready and more because he wanted to explore other sounds. The Hold Steady’s music is often celebratory, bar room rock with a Springsteen-like appeal. You go to a Hold Steady show with the notion that you’ll have a wildly fun time, fist in the air and a beer in your other hand. With his debut solo effort Clear Heart, Full Eyes, Finn chooses to step back from the energy and heavy guitars, focusing instead on introspective alt-country ballads and mid-tempo rock. It’s a different side to a relatively one-sided guy, though we’re left questioning exactly how necessary of an exercise it ultimately is.

One thing that’s not in doubt are Finn’s chops as a lyricist. His topics du jour in the past have been religion, failed relationships and good times with friends. On Clear Heart, Full Eyes he maintains that same trend, though with the slower and quieter songs the fun bits sort of take a back seat. He’s not without his sense of humor on some occasions however, as evidenced on “New Friend Jesus”, riffing on stigmata with the lines, “People say we suck at sports, but they don’t understand/it’s hard to catch with holes right through your hands.” One of the main changes the lyrics on Finn’s solo effort bring are a real sense of aging and the often depressing aspects that come along with it. Where his Hold Steady characters were mostly dealing with youthful follies and general messing around, the new characters are middle aged and living in a world of regret. On “No Future”, there’s a resigned and given up mentality that ultimately results in the line, “I’m alive, except for the inside”. And the end of the record brings a laser beam-like focus to breakups and winding up single for the rest of your life. When everyone else gets married, has kids and a family, Finn’s character is alone living in a “Rented Room”. He reminisces about a woman he used to love on “Balcony”, expressing frustration in lines like, “Saw you and him out on the balcony/it was the same thing you did with me”. The record closes with “Not Much Left of Us”, about the mutually assured destruction of two people that weren’t right for one another. “The part of us that still remains is rotten and bruised/like the soft spot on a piece of fruit”, he sings somberly and with a sincerity that makes you believe he’s actually lived it, even if he hasn’t.

As much of a bummer as the lyrics on Clear Heart, Full Eyes can be, the purposeful and off-the-cuff conversational manner in which they were written maximizes their power. They overwhelm everything else about the album, and that’s a very good thing because not much else really shines here. The lack of upbeat or even uptempo numbers makes the record a bit difficult to get through. It’s 45 minutes of darker, relatively depressing material, with only a wry smirk or a wink here and there. Songs like “New Friend Jesus” and “Honolulu Blues” function as would-be singles, picking up enough mojo or a halfway decent hook to make them some of the more memorable moments on an album that mostly drags along in a blur. Much of the musical backdrop for these songs was composed by friends of Finn in bands like Heartless Bastards, Centro-matic, White Denim and Phosphorescent, and you can sort of hear their varying styles across the songs. Alt-country (complete with slide guitars & violins) permeates songs like “Terrified Eyes”, “Balcony” and “Not Much Left of Us”, while a more rock and blues mentality gets taken on tracks like “Apollo Bay” and “No Future”. In spite of the variations in style, nothing is really that far removed from anything else, and Finn’s vocals and lyrics are the glue holding it all together anyways.

It’s a little difficult to tell exactly who the audience for Clear Heart, Full Eyes is supposed to be. Maybe it is middle-aged guys living a life they never intended. In some ways that’s every middle-aged person, as we’ve all had to make certain sacrifices or put our dreams to bed on occasion. The topics discussed here are not unrelatable in the least. But do we really want to dwell on them by listening to this music? Unlike The Hold Steady’s best, this isn’t the sort of record you can throw on at a whim. You need to be in a certain mindset to truly enjoy it or relate to it. Think back to some of the more somber ballads of The Hold Steady. Think of “Citrus” and “First Night” and “Lord, I’m Discouraged” as precursors to this record. If you love those songs and feel like an album’s worth of them if your cup of tea, perhaps Clear Heart, Full Eyes will be exactly what you’ve been looking for. It’s nice that Finn was able to take some time off from his main band and craft a record that truly highlights his songwriting ability and emotional maturity, but it also doesn’t necessarily feel like the concept is worth pursuing any further. He’s had his moment to play the adult, now it’s time to dust himself off, leave the pity party and return to the celebration. The kids are waiting by the bar with their glasses raised.

Stream the entire album for a limited time at NPR

Craig Finn – New Friend Jesus

Craig Finn – Honolulu Blues

Preorder Clear Heart, Full Eyes from Amazon

Mid-Year Review: 5 Disappointing Albums

Whether you’re new to the site or have been reading Faronheit in some form or another for a long time now, I feel that it’s worth mentioning today is the site’s official 4th anniversary. Yes, Faronheit has been around since July 1, 2006, and while the first 3.5 years were spent over at Blogspot, at this point I couldn’t be happier with the recent conversion to the dot com status. Granted, those 3.5 years worth of site archives are currently in the wind somewhere and I’m fighting to get them restored and uploaded here so all of you can have access to the complete library of reviews and the like, but for the time being we’re making good with what we have.

Faronheit was originally conceived as an outlet for me to have an open and honest discussion on a global scale with music fans looking to learn about and hear more from up-and-coming artists. Thanks to loyal readers, commenters and the multitudes that email me every day, because all of you contribute in one way or another towards making this site what it is currently. And the artists! They’re first and foremost in all this, so thanks for making music and giving us something to listen to and talk about at endless length.

Now I’ll continue with a tradition that I started with the very first post on Faronheit, which is my Mid-Year Roundup. Today and tomorrow I will highlight a few albums released in the first half of the year that have surprised me and disappointed me. Typically I choose 10 albums apiece in the surprising and disappointing categories, but despite having heard a wealth of very good and very bad music so far in 2010, not a whole lot has caught me off guard in one aspect or the other. So I chose instead to halve both lists to keep things neater, cleaner and more organized.

First up are 5 Disappointing Albums from the first half of 2010. Before we get started, I would like to clarify that the word “disappointing” is NOT intended to indicate BAD. An album can still be good and disappointing at the same time, because for all you knew the listening experience was supposed to be completely mindblowing but was instead only pretty good. Every album that made this list this year also coincidentally is by a band that has released at least two albums prior to their current one. The setup for disappointment in most of these cases is mostly failing to deliver on the promise that previous records had shown them capable of. Hopefully that makes more sense when you examine the list below, which by the way is not ranked and in alphabetical order for that exact reason. I’m also curious to know your opinions on this list, along with what albums disappointed you in the first half of the year. Let me know in the comments.

Band of Horses – Infinite Arms
It never occurred to me to find out the names of the guys in Band of Horses besides singer Ben Bridwell until I heard “Infinite Arms” for the first time. See, it turns out that unbeknownst to me, Band of Horses was pretty much Bridwell’s solo project for the first two albums and the guys he played shows with were pretty much hired hands. Well, after the last album “Cease to Begin”, Bridwell did hire some guys full time to write, record and tour with him. Band of Horses now being a full-fledged band, all the new guys contributed a bunch of stuff to “Infinite Arms”, and suddenly their mojo disappeared. The new songs are blander and aimed at the arena-sized crowds they’re starting to attract. If they got this far with more introspective and personal material, why stop now? I’m not saying that Bridwell should fire the rest of his band, but maybe for the next album they let him go back to what he does best – writing and composing songs on his own. [Buy]

The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever (Download: Hurricane J)
Keyboardist Franz Nicolay left The Hold Steady before they went to record “Heaven Is Whenever”, and though a moustachioed keyboard guy is never the lynchpin that makes any band go from good to great, something does feel like it’s missing from the band’s latest offering. The advancement of The Hold Steady from “Separation Sunday” to “Boys and Girls in America” was remarkable and pushed the band into new territory that saw them make huge strides in terms of attention and popularity. Their last album “Stay Positive” largely continued on the themes that “Girls and Boys in America” had set up, and while it was slightly less effective, the band remained exciting and prolific. Where “Heaven Is Whenever” goes wrong is when the band decides to abandon the Springsteen-esque progress they’d made on their last couple records and return to the much more guitar-based sound of their early days. If only they’d attempted to take another step forwards rather than looking backwards, I think everyone would have given them a little more leeway. Instead, The Hold Steady for the first time sound creatively exhausted, and Craig Finn’s stories are starting to wear a little thin. [Buy]

Hot Chip – One Life Stand
Hot Chip established themselves as this great electro-pop band building songs that sounded amazing on the dance floor. Examining the hits for a moment, songs like “Over and Over” and “Shake A Fist” were so huge and earned them such a following because they were fun, highly creative bursts of energy you could get down to. They seem to have forgotten that on “One Life Stand”, because the number of club banger tracks has decreased significantly. Yes, you could say the approach is far more nuanced and mature, but mid-tempo pop songs and slow ballads just don’t have the same cathartic release. There are a few great things about the album though, first and foremost among them is the incredibly great video for “I Feel Better”. I’m also all kinds of in love with the closing track “Take It In”. If Hot Chip want to show their more serious side, they have every right to do so, but as LCD Soundsystem has proven time and time again, you don’t need to scale back your beats and tempos to put your emotional depth on display. Hopefully they remember that for next time. [Buy]

Spoon – Transference
Spoon has had such a spectacular run of albums in the last few years that as much as we all might like that streak to continue, we knew it couldn’t go on forever. Their last album “Ga Ga Ga Ga Ga” may have placed them at the peak of their creative powers, so unless they could continue with that same vigor and intensity, “Transference” was going to be a let down. And so it was, with Britt Daniel & Co. turning in what felt at times like a half-baked album. As the band might put it though, every song is as complete as they want it to be. A small dash of grimy lo-fi here, a purposely missed or incompletely sung lyric there, and a splash of unfocused energy and things sound a little topsy-turvy in Spoon’s world. Good for them for having the courage and spirit to throw most everybody for some sort of loop, and the majority of the songs still work well even with the added quirks. “Transference” will go down as one of the lesser albums in Spoon’s catalogue, and as disappointing as that might be, the record is still interesting and even a bit surprising…just not always in that great sort of way. [Buy]

Stars – The Five Ghosts (Download: We Don’t Want Your Body)
Blandness and repeating yourself are two big things that many long-standing bands have had to fight against. Stars have reached their fifth album, and while their dark and depressing brand of indie pop has worked more often than it hasn’t, “The Five Ghosts” leaves them sounding like they’re no longer dying but are already dead. Many of the songs on the album are downtempo or devoid of any real expression of life, and the ones that do manage to pick themselves up off the floor can’t seem to do so for long. To be clear though this isn’t an album filled with bad songs, just merely okay ones. The positive is that Amy Millan really shines across the entire album from a vocal perspective, while Torquil Campbell seems pushed into a corner where he’s not allowed to be his normal, expressive self. It’s sad in a way, because while Stars haven’t always been the most prolific of Canadian exports, memories of magic from albums like “Nightsongs” and “Set Yourself On Fire” hurt whatever haunting message the band might be trying to get across here. Between this and “In Our Bedroom After the War”, let’s hope Stars find something a little lighter and less same-y sooner rather than later. [Buy]

TOMORROW – Mid-Year Review: 5 Surprising Albums

Album Review: The Hold Steady – Heaven Is Whenever [Vagrant/Rough Trade]

Never underestimate the power of a man and his keyboard. Of course that sentence only really applies to bands that actually use a fair amount of keyboard in their music. But it stands to reason that The Hold Steady were one of those bands, at least for one period in their careers. Franz Nicolay, with his little moustache and wacky on-stage energy, became sort of the warm little heart of the band next to frontman Craig Finn’s lovelorn and wordy barfly. It was a great combination, mostly evidenced by the evolution of the band’s sound and extensive critical praise over the last few years. Nicolay may not have been in the band when their second album “Separation Sunday” was recorded, but he was there at the beginning of something big and pushed them to the next level for its follow-up. 2006’s “Boys and Girls in America” was almost like the birth of a whole new band, and suddenly this Springsteen by way of Minnesota group was at the precipice of indie stardom and a whole new world of popularity. The songs bent and cracked and soared and were filled with teens hooking up and breaking up and it was real sad but everybody seemed to have a good time. “Stay Positive” arrived in 2008, and while critical response was slightly more tempered and less zealous, it was clear with all the touring and word of mouth that these guys were more popular than ever. Album sales were also significantly better than they had ever been, to the point where it almost seemed like The Hold Steady were gearing up for a big crossover into the mainstream. Then Franz Nicolay left the band. In a recent interview, he said, not harboring any resentment towards his former bandmates, that he felt like they had reached a creative stalemate, so he left rather than get pinned down to the same sound. When their new album “Heaven Is Whenever” comes out next Tuesday, I think that Nicolay will be proven right.

Here’s what I’d like you to do, especially if you’re a die-hard Hold Steady fan – go listen to 2005’s “Separation Sunday” and then put on “Heaven Is Whenever” immediately afterwards. Better yet, if you can load both albums into your mp3 player and hit the shuffle button, I’m intrigued to know if you’re able to detect a difference in style between the two. I think the records blend together effortlessly, and that can be considered both a big plus and a huge minus. The positive is that “Separation Sunday” is a brilliant album, perhaps The Hold Steady’s best to date, and the idea of there being some sort of sequel to it might make some weak in the knees. Hell, the band even brought back Dean Baltulonis to produce the album, who was also responsible for “Separation Sunday”. The thing is though, it was sort of a record for that particular time and place, where this up-and-coming band finally started to make good on their debut album’s promise, and Craig Finn’s songwriting had evolved quickly to the point where his stories were as vivid and had some massive guitar riffs to back them up. Plus, after that album when Franz Nicolay came aboard, their sound continued to grow and expand to far more epic proportions. With “Heaven Is Whenever” and the absence of Nicolay, the keyboards are all but gone and the band returns to their pre-Nicolay days of loud, big riffs. You could say they’re taking a massive step backwards. All the distance they’ve come since 2005 seems to have been wiped away and suddenly the past few years never existed. But even as a “non-sequel” to “Separation Sunday,” “Heaven Is Whenever” still falls short of that album’s excellence, and suddenly I’m starting to realize that between the endless riffs and Finn’s storytelling about girls who did him wrong, these guys are becoming all too predictable and just a little bit boring.

The brightest spots on “Heaven Is Whenever,” and there are a few of them, primarily come yet again from Craig Finn’s wonderful wordplay. That’s really the thing the band does best as well, because their melodies are so often (and rightly) compared to the barroom rock of American hero Bruce Springsteen. By now, a few albums in, we’ve gotten to know Finn relatively well, and whether the stories he tells via his lyrics are autobiographical or not, he seems to specialize in tales about girls that will break your heart in a million different ways. It’s a relatable problem, as are many of his platitudes. In the song “Soft in the Center,” Finn even goes so far as to utter the lines “I know what you’re goin’ through/I had to go through that too”, because apparently we weren’t already aware of that fact. Of course the same song also contains the brilliant lyrics “I know bodies of water freeze over/I’m from a place with lots of lakes/But sometimes they get soft in the center/The center is a dangerous place”, so I guess you could say it balances out. If you want to talk about home runs though, tracks that The Hold Steady absolutely crush, you can’t do much better than ballad “We Can Get Together,” a song about finding your (my) dream girl who just wants to sit on the floor and listen to records. There’s about a dozen references to bands and individual songs within this track, which includes Pavement, Meatloaf, Husker Du, The Psychedelic Furs, Heavenly and Utopia. It’s extremely well put together and also earns major points for being one of the few songs on the album that doesn’t get bogged down in extensive riffing (see: “Rock Problems”). Other notable good cuts on the album include “Barely Breathing,” “Hurricane J” and opener “The Sweet Part of the City”. The rest of the songs are merely okay, continuing to re-hash all the familiar points the band has covered these past several years.

In deciding whether or not “Heaven Is Whenever” is worth your time, I encourage you to consider just how much you love this band and their trademark mixture of big arena rock and highly intelligent wordplay. Franz Nicolay left the band because he felt that the guys were content with what they were already doing and didn’t want to push themselves creatively. That rings very much true on this album, and the question is are you like Nicolay and believe this sound has grown old and a little tired? I’m staying right in the middle on this one, as this new record both feels a little shaky but continues to keep me moderately interested thanks largely to Craig Finn’s witticisms. The guy continues to be prolific and brilliant, even when he’s talking about the same old subjects, and I’ll probably continue listening to this band just to hear what obscurely cool reference he pulls out of his lyrical hat next. Where does “Heaven Is Whenever” stand in The Hold Steady’s canon? That’s a difficult question to answer, especially since I wasn’t exactly high on the band’s last album “Stay Positive” either. “Separation Sunday” and “Boys and Girls in America” remain the gold standard for modern rock albums in my book, and their debut “Almost Killed Me” is…interesting to say the least. After this album though, my hope continues to be that The Hold Steady find a way to creatively evolve to the next level yet again. I’m not saying they need to throw out the elements that made them one of the more popular indie bands in existence today, but it’d be nice if they could mix it up just a little more than they currently are.

Preorder “Heaven Is Whenever” from Amazon

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén