By Michael Lello
There was never any question about the quality of The Hold Steady’s swaggering brand of beer commercial guitar riffs and barstool sermons. But it never seemed like an aesthetic that would have much of a shelf life. How many times can you wax philosophical about parties and hookups over three chords and a cloud of dust?
Remarkably, the band has dashed those doubts to bits, maintaining and developing their signature approach over the course of 10 years and six albums. And their newest, “Teeth Dreams,” is a streamlined slice of shimmering hard rock that takes the most musically direct approach yet, thanks in part to new producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Rush, Alice In Chains).
The band plows out of the gate with “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” a hard rock track that doesn’t waste time getting to know you before going for the kill. “Spinners” is a bit more atmospheric, with knotty electric guitar and a bit of air, but it’s equally driving and athemic. Raskulinecz’s stamp can be heard in guitars that are just a bit brighter than we’re used to – there’s even a Rush-like riff — and the ride cymbal and snare drum fills that crackle and snap.
“The Only Thing” continues in the same vein. A simple groove and guitar leads offer Craig Finn plenty of space to sing about a girl “sleeping at a storage space by the airport.” “The only thing she talks about is TV/ The only thing that tethers us together are these dreams.” There’s some Led Zeppelin stomp in the bridge before the bottom drops out for a dynamic and drumless interlude.
“The Ambassador,” perfectly placed about halfway into “Teeth Dreams,” is a ballad. After the fury of the opening triumvirate, the deliberate and thoughtful track is a welcome chaser. Finn rhymes “back to us” with “Minneapolis” because of course he does.
The respite is brief, as The Hold Steady slam into “On With The Business,” wild and dark, a more polished take on the band’s first two records, “Almost Killed Me” and “Separation Saturday.” Over pounding drums, Finn sings of “waking up with the American sadness.” “I said a couple things that probably weren’t technically true,” Finn says, and you believe him.
“Wait A While” is pure fist-pumping, booze-soaked rock. It’s nice to hear some organ two albums into the post-Franz Nicolay era, too. Tad Kubler is an underrated guitarist, and with Raskulinecz behind the dials, that might change; his playing has always been succinct, sharp and punchy, but now it gets priority in the mix.
“Almost Everything,” with its woody acoustic guitar and reverb-y vocals, follows in the footsteps of “The Weekenders,” a standout on the band’s previous album, “Heaven Is Whenever.”
Album closer “Oaks” is the biggest departure from anything The Hold Steady have recorded. It’s slow, laborious, light on its feet, and almost swings. It’s also long – a whopping nine minutes and 21 seconds. There are likely message board debates about whether this band should write nine-minute songs, and if so, whether “Oaks” earns the right to stretch out to that length. And it’s a valid debate. It’s not the best song on the album, but it’s expansive and moody, and there’s a cool organ/piano/fuzzy guitar interlude that takes up the last three minutes.
“Teeth Dreams” is just about what you’d come to hope for from The Hold Steady. It’s a solid album played by a band that seems like it couldn’t write a bad song if it tried. Is it the album you’d give to a friend to turn them on to the group? No. But it’s one they’ll certainly like if they’re already in the club.