The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams
by Cara McGrath, published May 7th 2014
Moldy | Stale | Edible | Fresh | Tasty!
Two qualities have long set out The Hold Steady from other bands in my mind: Craig Finn’s unique, gruff voice, and his frequently outrageous lyrics. Combined, these make for consistently great delivery of entertaining storylines. While these Brooklyn-based rockers’ music is also catchy and well played, these characteristics are those that define The Hold Steady. Songs like “Your Little Hoodrat Friend,” “You Can Make Him Like You” and “Sequestered in Memphis” are three of the band’s strongest representative tracks scattered throughout their career. Unfortunately, on Teeth Dreams, the vital, archetypal aspects present in these previous hits are almost entirely absent.
Change often means growth. In this case, The Hold Steady has taken a step back from their unique sound and relatable-working-class-angst that has allowed them to stand out since their inception. Now, instead, they have taken a step toward the generic big rock band sound, in an industry where being distinct is so vital. Finn’s voice has underwent a complete transformation; it sounds echoic, distant and soft and loses most of its originality and notoriously punchy delivery. Although the lyrics still may cover many of the same themes, the language and delivery simply fall short. While the news is a few years old, the departure of the band’s keyboardist, Franz Nicolay, has also left a bit of a missing piece in the band’s sound that is now quite noticeable.
The Teeth Dreams tracks with words and messages that are most similar to Finn’s previous lyricism are “Big Cig,” “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You,” and “On With the Business.” These are well written and catchy; with a sound like that heard on Boys and Girls in America (2006), these could easily be the album’s leading songs. Other various upbeat tracks on the record like “The Only Thing,” and “Runner’s High” are solid songs, but in the grand scheme of the band’s career, unexciting. All of these songs certainly would sound better live when Finn’s true, gruff voice can carry the lyrics the way they should be carried. But mixed with the new polished, echoic feel mentioned earlier, they are less successful than they could be.
Instead, it is the slower songs, specifically “The Ambassador,” “Almost Everything” and “Oaks” that work better with this new style and are arguably more intriguing overall. These tracks adopt a sound that is furthest from the old, allowing for less disappointed comparison and a more successful sense of growth. The three-minute musical outro on “Oaks” brings the album to a nice fading rock-and-roll finish—unlike anything we have heard from the band before.
Teeth Dreams isn’t a bad album. If you’ve never heard The Hold Steady before, it’s a pretty solid rock and roll record. It may be the Hold Steady’s most unified-sounding record to date, which is definitely a success. But since none of the songs are true hits, and since the vocals do not have their old, exciting punch, this unified sound allows a lot to blend together. With high expectations for fans set by previous releases like Boys and Girls in America (2006) and Separation Sunday (2005), their latest release is, ultimately, underwhelming.