The Hold Steady return to form on “Teeth Dreams”

By Jackson Maxwell

Daily Collegian File Photo
Daily Collegian File Photo

Writing about “Teeth Dreams” for the AV Club, Jason Heller said that the Hold Steady’s sixth album marked “a new band for a new world” and that it “might as well be a debut.” Indeed, this is a new Hold Steady than has previously not been heard on record. Almost four years removed from their last album, the dry, cold “Heaven Is Whenever,” the Hold Steady has returned to the studio with a new, additional guitarist in Steve Selvidge. In some ways, this is a whole new Hold Steady. Ybor City is gone, as are the breathtakingly jubilant “woah ohh ohh” choruses and anthemic, piano-driven bridges of the Franz Nicolay era. The only difference is that on “Heaven Is Whenever,” the absence of Nicolay, the band’s mustachioed keyboardist, was painfully obvious. Its 10 songs were filled with the band’s unmistakable chunky riffs and Craig Finn’s equally unmistakable nasal delivery and let’s-take-on-the-night lyrics. But for the first time, the band sounded tired. Their soul seemed to have left with Nicolay, leaving the Hold Steady, the ultimate feel-good bar-band, sounding like they had woken up in the early afternoon with a terrible hangover.

On “Teeth Dreams,” released on March 25, some of the old Hold Steady spirit undoubtedly remains. But instead of attempting to redo “Boys and Girls In America,” the band has obviously moved on. Selvidge fills in many of the sonic gaps left by Nicolay with his rock solid playing. Like Mick Taylor did 45 years ago for the Rolling Stones, the addition of Selvidge gives the band’s other guitarist, Tad Kubler, someone to work off of. The interplay they demonstrate brings back to life a band that seemed dead on “Heaven Is Whenever.”

Reacting to the band’s musical movement, Craig Finn has also changed. Lyrics are not tumbling out of his mouth at 100 miles an hour anymore. Heck, at some points on the record he does some actual singing. Finn strikes the perfect balance of lyrically maturing, inevitable as he grows older, while holding his razor-sharp wit in place.

The band makes a concerted effort not to sound too different on opening track and lead single “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You.” When Finn snarls “There was a side of this city I didn’t want you to see/there’s just these cats that I know and we go back pretty deep” in the song’s first chorus, it is a wonderful reminder of what made the Hold Steady so great. For the first time in years, the band sounds energized and ready to take on the world again.

“Spinners” is simply an epic. Careening from section to section over the course of five-plus minutes, and highlighted by some particularly beautiful verses in the early part of the song, it brings back to the forefront the Hold Steady’s intrinsic gift for dynamics. It seems that Selvidge has not only filled in the sonic gap left by Nicolay; he’s recovered some of the band’s tightness and flair for the dramatic. “The Only Thing” and “The Ambassador” are both wonderfully well written and tightly played, continuing the album’s opening hot streak. With its larger than life riffing and cocky rhythmic strut, “Big Cig” convincingly brings some of the old Hold Steady back. A classic Finn character, who “started smoking when she was seven,” gives the song a humorous, endlessly amusing edge.

“Runner’s High” also shares some DNA with Hold Steady songs from an earlier era. Only the riff on this song bites hard, and perfectly interacts with Finn’s vocals. The acoustic “Almost Everything” is a bit of a departure for the band, hinting more towards the directions Finn traveled down on his excellent 2012 solo debut “Clear Heart Full Eyes.” Regardless, it is a surprisingly affecting ballad that manages to throw a few curveballs at the listener. The nine-minute closer, “Oaks,” manages to somehow not feel its length. Epic and beautiful, it will make you want to, wherever you are, grab the nearest lighter and wave it in the air. Like a truly great album closer, it puts a perfectly ambitious coda on the album it ends.

This is not the same band that made “Boys and Girls In America” or “Stay Positive.” Those who are expecting “Teeth Dreams” to be a carbon copy of either of those albums will come away sorely disappointed. This is a new Hold Steady, one that is a little more mature, a little less inebriated, and more focused on musical depth than on a huge chorus. But “Teeth Dreams” has served to demonstrate that second lives do exist even for the most raucous of bar bands. There might not be any cold hard classics here, but “Teeth Dreams” shows the Hold Steady rejuvenated and is as energetic as ever. It’s great to have them back.

Jackson Maxwell can be reached at [email protected]