Teeth Dreams by The Hold Steady is the 6th full length release by the Brooklyn rock outfit. It arrives with new found energy–albeit a dark mid to late-1980s glossy energy that is sure to confuse rock snobs and Pitchfork–after the artistic exhaustion of 2010’s letdown, “Heaven Is Whenever.”
The band had entered a new phase without pianist Franz Nicolay on ‘Heaven‘–a key accompaniment to Craig Finn’s narratives and Tab Kubler’s classic rock guitar riffs on those first few records; “Separation Sunday,” “Boys and Girls In America” and “Stay Positive.” Lucero‘s guitarist, Steve Selvidge, joined The Hold Steady for the ‘Heaven’ tour which shifted the band’s 1970’s piano driven classic rock influence towards Teeth Dreams‘ arena rock ready attack.
Arena rock ready being a loose term to describe The Hold Steady’s great live performances over the last ten years towards some vague goal of achieving mass commercial acceptance. Dreams‘ production seems to be caked with the hope of achieving such which won’t fool long-time Hold Steady fans. Many of us have heard this before–The Replacements’ efforts with their major label recordings being a major touchstone.
There are questionable but entertaining production and mixing choices on Teeth that are easier to ignore after a few listens because the songs demand such forgiveness. Overly loud guitars and percussion that bury Finn’s narratives, caked with digital echo and extra compression. It would appear on first listen that The Hold Stead has jumped the shark for good. Or so they’d want you to think that. There’s something cautious and alive with fear in the ten songs that sets ‘Dreams’ characters apart from the band’s younger celebratorial records that is worth rebelling the production for.
Teeth Dreams‘ production is handled by Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Velvet Revolver, Rush). An unlikely choice for The Hold Steady on paper who–by his own production history–knows how to disguise awful compositions with loud production choices to make commercially acceptable hit records for bloated, certified, overrated arena-rock bands. Major difference being: Craig Finn scripts often-great lyrics and character narratives that his band dresses up in anthemic scenarios which there are no shortages of here.
The lead off track,”I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” sets the mood early with guitars screaming out the speakers and giving way to Finn reminiscing about youth, music and friends. It could cause many long time Hold Steady fans to revolt with flashbacks to the glossy production of rock albums from the 1980s, but it shouldn’t stop anyone from enjoying the songs.
There’s the party girl tease from the prairie now living in the big city and on the prowl for love, but in no condition to commit to anything other than failed one night stands with “soft hands and phantom pains” on “Spinners.” A narrator waking up from lost love dreams and wonderings, “Last night her teeth were in my dreams,” on “The Only Thing.”
Finn’s scenes are consistent throughout and the band keeps a rushed pace until the very end, beginning with the 80s influenced ballad, “Almost Everything.” It’s challenging to hear Finn singing–not yelling–”Yeah there are nights I get terrified, I’m sure you get terrified too” without thinking of Jon Bon Jovi and the steel horse he rode on with Richie Sambora in the late 80s. No complaints, but an interesting lead into the Crazy-horse meets Built To Spill inspired closer, “Oaks.” A 9 minute slow-burn that discloses a welcoming of the unknown ahead for The Hold Steady:
“We hope as we hang from the limbs of the trees. We cling to the rails on the boats. The trees as the turn into smoke. The trees they turn slowly to smoke.”
It’s the perfect last note for having to tread through the ambitious big rock production of “Teeth Dreams.” It also serves as an epic creative breakthrough for a band and its writer that sounds as if it has been lost in motion since 2008’s “Stay Positive.”
Don’t discount this record for its commercial ambitions and disgusting production, because these ten songs are some the band’s best. Being a teenager of the 80s who can count on one hand the commerically-produced records that provided a life jacket of enjoyment for myself and polarized others–The Replacements’ “Don’t Tell A Soul,” R.E.M.’s “Green” and Def Leppard’s “Hysteria”–Teeth Dreams has temporarily rescued The Hold Steady while they aim for the rafters.
Thank you for wasting more time with me on the internet. Eat that pizza and pet those puppies,