Teeth Dreams

The Hold Steady

Washington Square, 2014


REVIEW BY: Julia Skochko


In 2010, The Hold Steady’s Heaven Is Whenever closed with “A Slight Discomfort.” The newly released Teeth Dreams is a massive discomfort.

I mean that in the best possible way. The band’s first album in four years, Teeth Dreams is the band’s Gandalf the White moment: they have returned following a tumultuous absence and they are Not. Messing. Around.

It’s an album about anxiety, uncertainty and transition from a band intimately acquainted with the territory. The years following Heaven Is Whenever saw the departure of multi-instrumentalist Franz Nikolai, the addition of guitarist Steve Selvidge, a label change (from Vagrant to Razor & Tie), and the release of singer Craig Finn’s solo album. In the album’s press notes, guitarist Tad Kubler admits, “I can honestly say, there was a period of about two years where I believed this would be the last record Craig and I would make together.”

After an era of upheaval, it would’ve been understandable for the band to retreat to the blanket-fort of familiarity. But Teeth Dreams veers in the opposite direction, and it’s what makes the album both a challenge and a thrill. It’s not a departure but an evolution: it’s bigger and tighter, harder and starker. It’s an album unafraid to explore darkness. One of Teeth Dreams’ most striking themes is how anything – lives, bands, relationships, stale cigarettes, and yeah, the occasional molar – can and very well may crumble. It’s an unexpected turn for a band known for raucous paeans to killer parties. But listeners who follow the band down this particular alley will discover an album that’s richly satisfying and occasionally exhilarating.

The music, written largely by Kubler, is obscenely high-caliber. Tight and self-assured, it thrums and roars and devours each turn like a souped-up muscle car. It’s more streamlined than shambling, with fewer quirks and harder focus than previous albums. This is brainy, post-graduate rock, full of masterful (yet never self-indulgent) flourishes. And on Teeth Dreams, it’s front and center. 

This is also the most equitable Hold Steady release to date. The Hold Steady’s early output often consisted of Finn yowling rapid-fire wordscapes OVER the band. And – given the formidable chops of everyone involved – the result was amazing. But by Heaven Is Whenever, it was also well-trampled territory. Over the years, the juxtaposition of music and lyrics has slowly shifted from parallel to tandem. Finn’s words are a bit subtler and less bombastic this time around. Conspicuously absent are the usual cast of fictional miscreants (Holly, Gideon, and Charlemagne) wreaking gleeful havoc across the Midwest. While sparser, Finn’s lyrics remain terrific, an inventive, evocative antidote to bland songwriting. It’s occasionally frustrating that the vocals on my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 Teeth Dreams are mixed low and augmented with unnecessary echo because it’s hard to appreciate an excellent lyricist when the lyrics are barely audible.

The album roars to life with the initial single, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You,” a track that doesn't grab so much as shove. It’s as hard charging and gritty as a pre-Giuliani Central Park but not quite cohesive enough to reach anthemic heights. “On With The Business” melds that same cocky intensity with a snaky, propulsive main riff and rapid-fire wordplay (“Chemistry currency plastic and magic / Come on everybody, let’s get on with the business”). In the release notes, Kubler says, “there’s something absolutely sinister about this song.” There’s something ferociously compelling about it, too.

Teeth Dreams’s center is anchored by a duo of stellar tracks.  The sly “Big Cig” is one of the album’s newest sounding tracks. A wonderfully grungy bass line, a slick little guitar solo and a breezy, instantly shoutable chorus (I serve my purpose…burns on her skirt and smoke in her eyes / I serve my purpose…we power down and try to socialize”) fuse together in an epic ode to anxiously pining after a gorgeous train wreck. “Wait A While” is a huge, decadent slice of arena rock (and unexpectedly tender anti-rebound anthem), with components that click so smoothly that it instantly sounds like it’s being played at its own reunion show.

The album’s second single, “Spinners,” is the most archetypal Hold Steady cut. It’s catchy, danceable, and dizzyingly joyous. Kubler’s guitar work is slick and shimmery as wet chrome and Finn’s lyrics perfectly capture the awkward bravery of flinging yourself headfirst at the city night after night.

Nestled between more boisterous tracks, the album’s quieter, slow-burning songs are less consistent. Although the plaintive twang of “The Only Thing” is promising, the various elements take too long to twine together. “The Ambassador” is a woozy barroom ballad enlivened by the arrival of a distortion pedal and a hallelujah-like organ bridge. The stripped-down “Almost Everything,” however, is wistful and lovely; it unfolds with the contemplative yearning of a hungover Sunday (Sat in the back of the theater / Just drinking and talking / About movies and Krishna and hardcore and Jesus and joy”).

It’s a torch song for burned-out torches. It’s the drone of a guitar dematerializing molecule by molecule into nothingness. It’s a montage of someone drinking himself to death as his bar stool companions slowly… drift… away. It’s “Oaks,” Teeth Dreams’s final track, and it may be the first Hold Steady song to make you cry while completely sober. Hold Steady closing tracks traditionally start slow and build to a transcendent climax. Only this time, it’s not one of hope and joy, but of grief and permanence. “Oaks” is simultaneously the saddest and most striking song the band has produced, a work as vast and somber as an abandoned aircraft hangar. It contains multiple movements, a gorgeous, keening, “November Rain”-esque guitar solo, grating backup fuzz, and haunting lyrics (“There were days from last week / I couldn't quite complete / Skipped ahead to the next afternoon...”).  Kubler says that, when composing “Oaks,” “I wanted to have a track ready to close out the album that would sound like things weren’t ever going to be the same.”

Things probably won’t ever be the same. Things change. People change. Entropy creeps along our baseboards. Teeth Dreams embraces this and rides it like a janky subway car. It’s not just a solid rock record.  It’s also a musical time-lapse sequence, the culmination of four years of growth and change, with all the slow-unfurling energy of metamorphosis condensed into a single compelling burst. Transition’s a scary thing, but when it sounds this good, you might as well open the windows, crank the stereo and face it head-on.

Rating: A-

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