The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams

Teeth Dreams (2014)


1. I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You 2. Spinners 3. The Only Thing 4. The Ambassador 5. On With The Business 6. Big Cig 7. Wait A While 8. Runner’s High 9. Almost Everything 10. Oaks


Hardworking, blue collar bands like the Hold Steady aren’t supposed to take four years off between albums. Oh sure, it might work fine for bands like Radiohead or Arcade Fire, who have painstakingly built up images as cerebral studio rats so that people will actually believe them when they claim to need eight months to get just the right amount of reverb on the snare hit at 2:56 of track 4. My ass. But purveyors of meat and potatoes rock don’t have the same luxury. Churn out the tunes, lay ‘em down, and hit the road, you know? Lazy bums! What the hell are they doing with their time otherwise? Laying around and shooting up or something?

Well, sort of, as it turns out. Turns out that, after a couple of scary bouts with pancreatitis prior to the recording of Heaven Is Whenever, Tad was forced to give up drinking. Can you imagine, a member of the Hold Steady unable to “GET HAMMERED?” It’s like a Republican member of Congress being unable to utter the phrase “job creators” without almost dying as a result! (If only, am I right?). Faced with this circumstance, Tad did the most logical thing possible: got himself hooked on drugs. Which I guess sort of explains why Heaven Is Whenever ended up sorta half-baked – though I stand by my B+ rating of the album, even if no one else seems to like it all that much. Fortunately, Tad has been off the junk for longer than he was on it now, but the damage had been done. Whether due to inter-band tensions caused by Tad’s issues or a combination of other factors, the band cut way down on their touring schedule and just never seemed to muster up enough momentum to, you know, write a few new songs and spend some time in the studio. Craig even put out a (quite good) solo album, Clear Heart Full Eyes, in 2012, perhaps feeling out an escape route from the Hold Steady if it became necessary.

Fortunately for all of us, they finally got their shit together and emerged with a renewed sense of purpose. But with all that time off, and all that had happened during that period, it should come as no surprise that Teeth Dreams is at least somewhat of a departure for the band. Part of that has to do with the slicker-than-usual production, courtesy of Nick Raskulinecz, who has helmed record for the likes of the Foo Fighters and Evanescence. That sort of corporate rock aesthetic may seem antithetical to what the Hold Steady are all about, and it has its drawbacks—the compression on the guitars whenever the big crunchy parts come around makes me yearn for the halcyon days of Boys And Girls In America—but for the most part I think Raskulinecz’s production works here. The instruments are all well-separated, and with some deft double tracking, reverb, and who knows, maybe some good old fashioned coaching, he coaxes more melodicism out of Craig’s vocals than ever before.

Another defining element of Teeth Dreams is the band’s new two-guitar lineup. Additional axe man Steve Selvidge joined right around the time Heaven Is Whenever was released, so he and Tad have had quite a bit of time on the road to gel together. And they certainly have developed chemistry – their tones, styles, and even their soloing are so similar that they often just sound like one guitar player with four arms. However, the nature of that chemistry is not at all what I would have expected. Yeah, instead of the wild dueling solos and crazy Thin Lizzy-style double riffage that Tad always seemed like he wanted to put on Hold Steady records, we get an intertwining web of fairly restrained arpeggios and single note runs that play off of each other in highly complimentary, but hardly ostentatious ways. It comes off sort of like a higher-octane version of mid-period R.E.M. in places, which is certainly fine with me, and is indicative of the shift in songwriting approach that is evident on Teeth Dreams, which for the first time is more reliant on hooks than riffs. This opens the door to new kinds of material that they couldn’t pull off before, like the bittersweet mid-tempo popper “The Only Thing” (that sorta countryish note bending Steve does during the bridge is a nice new wrinkle) and especially the simmering “The Ambassador,” which injects all kinds of slow-building classic rock goodness into the proceedings. Even more notably, it is inexplicably the second Hold Steady song to mention the glamorous locale of Bay City, Michigan (the first was “Sweet Payne” off of Almost Killed Me). Totally weird. I mean, I’ve been to Bay City, and trust me, there is nothing rock ‘n roll about that town. The main drag consists of a Lucky’s Steakhouse, a Pizzeria Uno, and a Cracker Barrel, and the coolest place to hang out around town is the bowling alley. I would really love to know why in the hell Craig keeps singing about it.

Otherwise, however, there are probably fewer lyrical callbacks here than ever before. Yeah, the Cityscape Skins show up again in the first line of the first song, but after that, Holly, Gideon, and the gang are nowhere to be found. I guess Craig had started moving away from recounting the same killer parties over and over on Heaven Is Whenever, but on Teeth Dreams, his lyrics are even less specific and more universal without sacrificing his unique voice. It’s exactly the kind of evolution he needed to pull off and it results in yet another full slate of classic lines:

“I heard the Cityscape Skins are kinda kicking it again/I heard they finally got some discipline/Running up the score and stocking up like it’s World War Four.”

“Never let them tie you up/It’s a big city there’s a lot of love.”

“Your friend from the tire shop/He keeps talking about some rock/Like he wants something hard to hit his head on.”

“So many choices, decisions, decisions/I said a couple things that probably weren’t technically true.”

“Sat in the back of the theater just drinking and talking/About movies and Krishna and hardcore and Jesus and joy.”

“Went to some movie/It was big dumb and bloody/The third act took place in a wormhole/The hero ascended to heaven and we headed home.”

“There were days from last week I couldn’t quite complete/Skipped ahead to the next afternoon.”

But even with all these new elements added to the mix, if I were to distill the difference between Teeth Dreams and all the other Hold Steady albums into one thing, it’s that the music has never been so complimentary to the lyrics and vocals before. Part of what has always made the Hold Steady so unique is the dichotomy between Craig’s anti-singing and the brawny bar rock backing him up. But through a combination of Craig attempting to actually sing more and Tad maturing as a songwriter—especially the latter—said dichotomy has gotten closer to a Unified Scene, as they say. For me, the most interesting result of this shift is that the music, which is still plenty noisy but less reliant on fist-pumping bombast, is now more reflective of the darker, more cynical elements of Craig’s lyrics. Those elements have always been there, in between all the staying positive and massive nights, but Craig seems to sing about struggle and anxiety more than ever on Teeth Dreams, and Tad adjusts his songwriting accordingly. It’s the same thing I loved about Heaven Is Whenever’s “A Slight Discomfort,” and it’s what I love about this album.

Not that this is a total downer of a record or anything – the pumping “Spinners” is probably the most idealistic song Craig has ever written (“Once you’re out there everything’s possible/Even the band nights they aren’t all that terrible.” Partying can save the world, man!), and the massively hooky “Wait A While” is some seriously excellent power pop (and I love the shit out of it, but lyrically, isn’t it weirdly, um… slut shamy? “Collecting boyfriends isn’t such a healthy hobby?” Sounds like something a men’s rights activist troll on Jezebel would say. Eh, whatever, I can’t stop singing along anyway. “WHY DON’T YOU WAIT A WHIIIILE…”). But the album has a definite tinge of darkness to it, at least for this band. The opener “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” and its shifty guitars leap out of the speakers with urgency and sweaty city street paranoia. On “On With The Business,” the tension builds up so acutely as the chorus repeats at the end that the effect is almost oppressive. That’s a great song. It all culminates in the closer “Oaks,” a sprawling electric folk ballad in which just the faintest glimmer of hope can be detected underneath Craig and the band’s sad resignation. “And we hope/As we hang from the limbs of the trees.” Beautiful. I still think “A Slight Discomfort” is better but “Oaks” gives it a run for its money.

So yeah, the Hold Steady are back! Woo! Hopefully it won’t be another four years before we hear from them again.

One Comment

  1. Emily wrote:

    You forgot to mention the Red Lobster next to the Bay City Mall! That’s a pretty happenin’ hang out!

    For my grandma, anyway.

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