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Parker Evans is an economics senior and Mustang News music columnist.
Near the end of Teeth Dreams, frontman/poet Craig Finn provides a succinct summary of The Hold Steady’s career to date: “Sat in the back of the theater just drinking and talking / About movies and Krishna and hardcore and Jesus and joy.”
One decade after the band’s whiskey-soaked, bruising debut Almost Killed Me, it’s exciting to hear The Hold Steady return to form. After the slight stutter that was 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever and an inessential solo album from Finn, the band finally seems to be adjusting to the loss of keyboardist Franz Nicolay. The absence of that piano which lent so much drunken grandiloquence to an already boozy aesthetic is still noticeable, but Finn and company wisely decided to double down on the heavy, pairing original guitarist Tad Kubler with capable mercenary Steve Selvidge.
The overriding tone of Teeth Dreams is a potent cocktail of suffocating anxiety, paranoia and threat of violence. Serious Hold Steady-heads will instantly recognize Finn’s first line on opener “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” as a direct quote from Almost Killed Me’s “Sweet Payne.” Yep, the Cityscape Skins are kind of kicking it again, and they’ve finally got some discipline. After a slight hiatus, Finn’s back in his comfort zone, setting the album in the now-familiar shady underbelly of his hometown, the Twin Cities. Though characters from previous Hold Steady albums like Holly, Sapphire and Charlemagne are present, they’re not mentioned by name. Gideon (identified only by his tattoo and job in Bay City, Mich.) takes up the loose plot thread that runs throughout Teeth Dreams as he embarks on some criminal venture — either a robbery or a revenge bender. Either way, blood, drugs and diamonds are mixed up in the whole business.
Finn superfans will pick up on little pieces and the requisite inside jokes and references to the Hold Steady/Lifter Puller discographies, but for first-time listeners, this is the band’s most accessible album since Boys and Girls in America. Lead single “Spinners” finds Finn earning the persistent comparisons to Springsteen with a textbook go-forth-into-the-city anthem for the barflies. “Once you’re out there, everything’s possible,” he sings. “There might be a fight / There might be a miracle.”
The Hold Steady has a well-earned reputation as a banging, boozy bar band, but Finn’s softer ballads have always been album highlights. Fortunately, Teeth Dreams’ centerpiece, “The Ambassador” is the best ballad he’s written since “Lord, I’m Discouraged,” offering the gorgeously idiosyncratic Finn-ism, “the nights were hot and hissing like an iron / the days spent climbing walls like a vine.” Even so, there’s a tense undercurrent to the song with the traditional Hold Steady themes of hard drugs and trippy pseudo-Catholic mysticism making their expected appearances.
For all the improvements in the songwriting and confidence, the production on Teeth Dreams does its best to undo all that goodwill in what has somehow become a running theme. The Hold Steady has been at cross-purposes with its own production for six albums now, but Teeth Dreams is by far the worst. The mix is all over the place, the guitars on “The Only Thing” are a crime against rock, and the reverb on Finn’s voice throughout is an inexcusably terrible decision.
It’s a testament to the work of Finn, Kubler and Selvidge that The Hold Steady fights through all of this to turn out a solid album with little bursts of brilliance. Closer “Oaks” is the longest song in the band’s career to date, clocking in at a touch over nine minutes. On Heaven is Whenever, that runtime would have been a death knell, but the outro on “Oaks” earns every second as Kubler’s country-tinged guitar eventually runs into Selvidge’s stunning wall of sound taken straight from Neil Young’s playbook.
Teeth Dreams isn’t a reinvention of The Hold Steady’s sound, but it does mark the next stage in the band’s logical progression. After 10 years of drinking and drugs, Kubler got clean this past year. Finn’s years of emerging onto the stage with an empty bottle of whiskey and some curious dance moves are probably numbered. More than anything, it’s a relief that The Hold Steady is still capable of telling stories and getting us to sing along.