In a Rolling Stone article about Teeth Dreams, The Hold Steady’s sixth release in just ten years, frontman Craig Finn admitted the band was “looking to make a big rock record.” But isn’t that the goal of every Hold Steady album?
The band’s debut record, Almost Killed Me, amplified the grungy, hyper-literate indie stylings of Finn’s previous band Lifter Puller to stadium levels. Separation Sunday soundtracked the saga of troubled Minnesotans with spoken snarl and rock opera gusto; it’s an essential listen. The nearly-as-good Boys and Girls in America brought actual vocal melodies and even more Springsteen influence to the fray. Stay Positive widened the band’s scope considerably while maintaining their signature bar band grit. Even Heaven is Whenever, The Hold Steady’s most divisive album to date, harkened back to the haunting lushness of chart-topping pop rock bands like Fleetwood Mac.
So what makes Teeth Dreams different? That remains to be seen; if anything, it’s the first Hold Steady record without distinction. The best parts of their sound are compromised in one way or another by big-time producer Nick Raskulinecz’s busy, overstuffed mix. Electric and acoustic guitars are meticulously overdubbed to the point where they drown out the band’s usually powerful rhythm section. It’s a frustrating choice that sullies the otherwise excellent “On With the Business,” a rollicking track featuring a classic Hold Steady line: “I said a couple things that probably weren’t technically true.”
Craig Finn’s vocals—usually the heart and soul of the band’s best songs—seem especially tired on this record, nowhere more evident than on the first track and lead single “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You.” He sounds nasal on the verses and stilted on the chorus. The double-tracking and echo effects certainly don’t help. Much like the hit-and-miss production, Finn’s songwriting isn’t quite up to par on Teeth Dreams. Just about every track is an agreeable listen but few of them will stick with you for days on end like the band’s best songs.
“Spinners” and “The Only Thing” are the only tracks to earn a space among the band’s legendary canon. “Spinners” was a solid choice for second single status, as it thrills right out of the gate with a soaring intro reminiscent of the more wistful tracks on Heaven is Whenever. Finn observes the troubles of a woman stuck in an exhausting cycle of deadbeat lotharios and long nights out on the town. With the wisdom of an aging poet who’s seen it all, he encourages her to keep trying for something real:
“Never let them tie you up
It’s a big city, there’s a lot of love
Salted rims and frosted mugs
You gotta get back out there”
That enchanting, almost romantic sound continues on “The Only Thing.” Longtime guitarist Tad Kubler and new addition Steve Selvidge interlock gently strummed arpeggios with sustained, heavily distorted notes that beautifully complement Finn’s restless chorus. He’s haunted by a girl long gone, wondering where she’s been and if she’s safe, endlessly reminded of her departure by the sight of her teeth in his dreams. It’s a grower of a tune with plenty of charm.
Elsewhere the band cribs wholesale from the same influences they once built upon. “Runner’s High” shamelessly rips a guitar lick from Bryan Adams’ “Summer of ’69.” Finn sounds a lot like The Smithereens’ Pat DiNizio on “Wait a While,” only without Pat’s gift for deft melodies. “The Ambassador” could turn out to be a lost song by The Band and no one would question it. All of these songs are played with skill but they’re unmemorable. Even the weaker tracks on Stay Positive or Heaven is Whenever had unique characteristics that justified their inclusion on the albums.
Not so with Teeth Dreams. The hook of “Big Cig” is just embarrassing when spouted from the mouth of a wordsmith known and loved for his impossibly clever writing. The track’s accompaniment is similarly bland, serving up a muddled mix of cock rock riffs and half-hearted guitar harmonies. “Almost Anything” aims for a tender acoustic moment in the vein of “Both Crosses” or “Citrus” yet the syrupy chorus effect slathered on the guitars pretty much ruins any impact. And the final track, “Oaks”, desperately wants to be a sprawling epic but runs out of ideas well before its indulgent nine minutes are up.
If it seems too easy to go hard on The Hold Steady at this point in their career, that’s only because the band set a very high standard with their first four albums. Heaven is Whenever just barely missed the mark but Teeth Dreams doesn’t even come close. Despite that, it’s an enjoyable album with occasionally great moments. This record would be a solid entry in the discography of any old rock band, and that’s the problem — The Hold Steady isn’t any old rock band. At least not until now.
Rating: 3/5 stars