Monday, October 6th, 2014

Review by Oscar Jordan

The Hold Steady returns with their sixth studio album Teeth Dreams. Produced by Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Rush), front man Craig Finn blurts about the down and out amidst a sound echoing The Replacements and straight-a-head American rock. Finn wears literary references on his sleeve as he intertwines the work of dead novelists and poets, with Springsteen style sagas of the working class. Gritty prose about despair, hard knocks, and battered losers are offset by the facade of a streetwise band with hearty middle American rock grooves.

This bar band for lit majors aspires to a tougher sound with the departure of keyboardist Franz Nicolay and the addition of Steve Selvidge on guitar. Rounding out the line-up is Bobby Drake on drums, Tad Kubler on guitar, Galen Polivka on bass, and Craig Finn on guitar and vocals. While past releases echoed a nod to Hüsker Dü (a primary influence), Teeth Dreams goes its own way with graphic novel depictions of the warped and the wicked.

Finn’s flawed but sympathetic protagonists almost validate his quirky sense of meter and long-windedness. He also has the kind of aggravating vocal delivery that makes you want to punch him in the face. He spits out split-second images and vignettes, but no matter what you believe he’s singing about, only Finn really knows what he’s going on and on about.

“I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” is the kind of earnest “What I’m saying is oh so important” proselytization that might really annoy newcomers to the band. Finn’s stories get lost in favor of well-placed sound bites. Die-hard The Hold Steady fans are sure to “get it” and make up their own IPA beer-soaked narratives. Fortunately, it’s good old American guitar-driven rock and roll, and even the most obtuse can’t help but appreciate Selvidge and Kubler’s seamlessly woven guitar arrangements.

“The Only Thing” benefits from crafty rhythmic interplay, familiar chord ornamentation, chugging guitars, pitch perfect vocal harmonies, and lyrics that pop in all the right places. “Ambassador” is a ballad that showcases Raskulinecz’ excellent production skill and sense of mood and atmosphere he brings to the album. “Big Cig” has a killer riff and makes great use of feedback, while “Runner’s High” has an “Already Gone” vibe ala The Eagles that morphs, but still twangs.

“Almost Everything” is a coffee house acoustic number full of passion and vulnerability that acts purposefully to give Teeth Dreams breadth, range, and dynamics. It’s a well-paced record for pseudo-brainy dad rockers that balances low-frills rock ensemble work, with portraits of down and outs without ever getting its hands dirty. It’s songs about the city written from suburbia.




The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams
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