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Album reviews

Bar band gets it together

The Hold Steady

“Heaven Is Whenever”

(Vagrant)

**1/2

The Hold Steady always caught flak for being a mock bar band, but somewhere along the way it became an actual bar band. As in the kind of band that makes solid and near-identical albums every few years, each destined to soundtrack backyard barbecues circa 2025, when its current fan base will be yelling at their kids to quit hitting each other with grill tongs.

With “Heaven Is Whenever,” the Hold Steady finally lost the scare quotes and really did become the hipster AC/DC. This is not a knock. Its knack for dissembling the line between earnest riffage and cheeky homage is intact — “The Weekenders” and “Hurricane J” stand with the best cuts of its career, and certainly the most heartfelt. Singer Craig Finn has largely dialed down the meandering Twin Cities travelogues for more intimately cutting turns of phrase — “You can’t get every girl, you’ll get the ones you love the best / You won’t get every girl, you’ll love the ones you get the best.”

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The band definitely misses its Snidely Whiplash-evoking keyboardist Franz Nicolay, and while a gentle country cut like “The Sweet Part of the City” or AM ballad “We Can Get Together” shows broader ambitions, “Heaven” already feels a bit preserved in amber — maybe the amber of a spilled Schlitz tall boy, but still.

— August Brown

Chicks unleashed, mostly

Court Yard Hounds

“Court Yard Hounds”

Columbia

**1/2

With the Dixie Chicks on hiatus, sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire decided to go it as a duo while singer Natalie Maines extends her vacation from the recording studio. As the Court Yard Hounds, Robison and Maguire cover similar emotional territory — romance, heartbreak, social justice — but in more pop-driven musical settings.

There are still healthy doses of fiddle, banjo and steel guitar, but because Robison, who handles the lead vocals, has a kinder, gentler voice than her edgy Chicks partner Maines, the sound is more Sheryl Crow and, on occasion, the girl-group-with-a-drawl style of — dare we say it — Skeeter Davis.

At its most caustic, this debut can sound like the other shoe dropping on the divorce between Robison and roots musician Charlie Robison, who gave his less-than-charitable side of the story last year on his “Beautiful Day” album. “See You in the Spring,” an engagingly tense duet with Jakob Dylan, serves up a disjunctive dialogue between two people who obviously aren’t going to keep it together. “Fairytale” says a melancholy farewell to happily ever after, while “Gracefully” says in no uncertain terms “We’re no good together/We settle like oil and water.”

Robison wrote or co-wrote all the songs, except for Maguire’s “Gracefully,” and she’s more intriguing when working in third-person situations such as “Ain’t No Son,” a plea from a guy who is gay and looking unsuccessfully for understanding from an intransigent parent. Things also pick up in “The Coast,” a celebration of finding a sense of peace in a time of strife.

The songs and the sentiments ring of honest emotion, but not consistently of inspired lyric writing, and for all the well-considered inner reflection, you wish these Hounds had channeled a bit more of Maines’ bark and bite.

— Randy Lewis

Barely on the pulse of inspiration

Toni Braxton

“Pulse”

(Atlantic)

**

One of the ‘90s’ biggest soul music stars, Toni Braxton hasn’t released a new studio album since 2005. But that doesn’t mean she’s been laying low: In 2008 she ended a nearly two-year run at the Flamingo in Las Vegas, then appeared as a competitor on TV’s “Dancing With the Stars.” Still, with its sleek digital beats and in-your-face lyrics, Braxton’s new “Pulse” has the something-to-prove quality of a comeback record; much of it sounds like her attempt to keep up with the Rihannas and the Beyoncés currently ruling the R&B roost.

Occasionally that inspiration leads Braxton into outright mimicry: Opener “Yesterday” cribs its twinkly emo-soul texture (and some of its airy vocal melody) from Beyoncé's “Broken-Hearted Girl,” while the bubbly, synth-soaked “Lookin’ at Me” plays like an unintentional ode to “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” The singer has no trouble making herself at home in these cuts, but the flimsy material can’t quite conceal her hit-hungry desperation.

Braxton fares better in the album’s slower, more sensual songs, such as “Hero,” a stutter-stepped ballad cowritten by Kara DioGuardi, and the Chuck Harmony-produced title track. And she’s most impressive in “Woman,” where she reminds a lover, “I’m not some girl who don’t know what she wants.” More of “Pulse” could’ve used that conviction.

— Mikael Wood

Broken gets back on the scene

Broken Social Scene

“Forgiveness Rock Record”

Arts & Crafts

***

Despite its name, Broken Social Scene is anything but. Instead, the sprawling Toronto-based collective has functioned like an indie-pop prep school for several talented musicians now all grown up, most notably Leslie Feist and Emily Haines, the latter of whom now helms Metric with fellow alumnus Jimmy Shaw.

And though the group has slimmed down to seven official members, it’s a testament to family lure that all the aforementioned make appearances on BSS’ first album in five years, “Forgiveness Rock Record,” along with several other collaborators, including producer John McEntire, Sea and Cake’s Sam Prekop and Tortoise’s Doug McCombs, all from Chicago — the only other city with a scene as incestuous as Toronto’s.

Clocking in with 14 wide-screen songs, “Forgiveness Rock Record” sounds trim and taut at nearly every turn. McEntire’s nimble production keeps all the layers distinct, even when the band is whipping up a tender maelstrom of fey orchestration. Many of the songs bloom from chorus-driven pop into soundscaped reveries, but neither one functions as digression or indulgence.

A few tracks slip by without offering much foothold, but the songs that catch are some of the best of the band’s output. The album opener, “World Sick,” is a fully realized cycle of insistent synths, crashing drums and Kevin Drew’s psycho-sexual longing. “All to All” is airy grace and “Ungrateful Little Father” is a syncopated blurt of screwball indie pop. “Me and My Hand,” by title alone, proves that BSS’ stifled giggles aren’t contained to just one track. Sure, the members have grown up but just enough.

— Margaret Wappler


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