The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams

by Ethan Ranis Rating:8.5 Release Date:2014-03-24

For a band whose rock songs are predominantly concerned with sex and drugs, The Hold Steady have largely been a defiantly unsexy band. You see, The Hold Steady were reliable: churning out a record every year, with Craig Finn spitting and shaking his way through poetic depictions of Minneapolis and some of its key denizens (Gideon, Holly, et al), while Tad Kubler's guitar alternated between a steady distorted chug and the occasional fiery lick. Franz Nicolay's sprightly keyboard and the general uptempo, feel-good vibe were constant reminders that no matter what craziness the lyrics depicted, it was all a part of the same party.

Teeth Dreams is about as abrupt a break as the band could make with its past without totally losing its identity. After losing Nicolay, the band spent four years instead of the usual one figuring itself out. They picked up a new guitarist (Steve Selvidge, formerly of Lucero), sequestered themselves in Memphis and came up with something dark, powerful, and ambitious. Few named characters present themselves. The track lengths sprawl. The guitars attack and smolder instead of uplift.

This album is the sound of waking up from a decade-long bash with a hangover to match, realizing that the friendly hedonists are now haunted addicts, something sinister awaits just outside the club, and the Mississippi river is choked with mud. And then carrying on anyway.

The changes are immediately apparent from the first track, 'I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You'. Over a frantic, minor-key backing, Finn yells, "There was a side of this city I didn't want you to see", his vocals multitracked in an especially threatening manner. He goes on to describe some inner-city survivalists preparing for “World War IV”, insisting in a typically dark, humorous fashion that he only hangs out with them to go to shows. 

Though the music occasionally calms down from here, the lyrics are frequently even grimmer.  Three songs use spilt blood as prominent imagery, and the most hopeful song on the album is only a shade lighter than ‘You Can Make Him Like You,’ one of the more pessimistic tracks on the landmark Boys and Girls in America.

That hopeful song is prerelease single ‘Spinners,’ and it’s probably the closest thing to classic Hold Steady on display here. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that it’s also one of the weakest songs on the album, detailing a rather cliched story of a girl from a “prairie town” sleeping her way through the “big city”. The hooks here aren’t as strong as the best work on Boys and Girls and the lyrics don’t quite fit the chugging midtempo background. Even when it takes a split-second break before a solo, the song never quite takes off.

Thankfully, there’s much better work on the rest of the album, particularly in the lyrical department.  Craig Finn has always had a way with a one-liner, and he piles on some particularly devastating, funny, and absurd couplets here. Between “I’ve been trying to get in touch with her/ Last night her teeth were in my dreams”, and “I’m sorry/ There’s other words than 'yes'”, there are also more subtle touches, such as when he trades “Once they hear you’ve got a broken heart” for “Once they hear they’ve got an open shot” for a single chorus on ‘Wait a While’, laying the mercenary motives of the boys in question absolutely bare.

A lyric sheet’s never been more necessary to enjoy the band, as Teeth Dreams finds them experimenting with running Finn’s vocals through a number of effects, notably a filtered echo which sounds like he’s repeating his lines through increasingly thick layers of gelatin. The added muscle of a second guitar also makes the arrangements considerably denser and heftier, and much of the album is liberally coated in stadium reverb.

These experiments all coalesce on the closing track, ‘Oaks’. Beginning with a stumbling, waltz-time dirge, Finn relates a story of drug addiction over rippling, Southern-fried guitar and organ: "There were days from last week/ I couldn't quite complete/ Skipped ahead to the next afternoon/ Sweat through the sheets/ Slept in my shoes”. Halfway through, the song turns on a single phrase: “And we dream.” Suddenly, the other instruments drop out, and Finn’s voice shifts from its usual laconic monotone to an outright melody, albeit sung through a high-pass filter which sounds like he’s on a long-distance call. 

As he sings of “The trees as they turn into smoke”, a raw, slow-burning guitar solo takes the album to its end.  It’s unlike anything they’ve ever done before, and yet the natural conclusion to all of their work: a hybrid of ‘Jungleland’ and Requiem for a Dream which could be a fitting encore all in itself.  If it took them twice as long as the Boss to make their epic, damned if they didn’t earn it.

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