Monday, March 31, 2014

Gut Feeling: The Hold Steady - Teeth Dreams

The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams
Washington Square, 2014
“When we get older it gets harder to remember/ We are our only saviors,” Craig Finn intoned on the lead-off track of the Hold Steady’s last great record, 2008’s Stay Positive. That album was about growing up after three albums of killer parties, massive nights, and sketchy characters roaming the streets of the Twin Cities. Sadly, all of that wonderful debauchery has proved to be what made the Hold Steady so wonderful, and while it’s natural, even necessary, to mature, its not without its consequences.

In the case of the Hold Steady, they’ve made another good record. Just good. It has its moments, but it’s hardly even a shadow of Separation Sunday or Boys and Girls in America. There’s simply no energy. The band’s 2010 release, Heaven is Whenever, suffered from the same lack of spark, and I’m not surprised that the band now has more in common with Finn’s solo record (2012’s Clear Heart, Full Eyes) than the halcyon days of the Hold Steady’s mythos.

It almost hurts that the opening track “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” is vintage Hold Steady from the soaring riffs to the MPLS locale and the ominous presence of the Cityscape Skins. But it’s just there to get your hopes up. Second-single “Spinners” loses all the big majesty it shoots for in the muddy production that plagues the entire album (which is what you get when you hire Evanescence’s producer) and suffers from the pop-rock tendency to repeat the chorus 20 times. It’s boring. The album’s midpoint “Big Cig” is another vintage Hold Steady rocker that’s a sound for sore ears but is unfortunately followed by a couple of bland rockers that sap the goodness.

The thing is, I can’t blame the Hold Steady for not making ass-kicking records anymore because I don’t think they’re that band. The saddest thing is watching a songwriter with such a great eye for detail settle for broad generalities. It’s not that Teeth Dreams isn’t ambitious, because it’s super ambitious. If you had told me a Hold Steady album would end with two quiet tracks spanning almost 15 minutes I wouldn’t have believed you. The quiet tracks are where Finn’s songwriting really shines, but the excellent “Almost Everything” belongs on Finn’s next solo record and “The Ambassador” has great verses but the chorus is oh so blah. Nine-minute closer “Oaks” is a moody dirge that recalls Heaven is Whenever closer “A Slight Discomfort” minus the dynamic bigness that ended that record in a moment of triumph. “Oaks” plods along to the point where I can’t even pay attention. It eventually devolves into guitar solos as the album puts itself out of its mercy.

It sounds like I hate Teeth Dreams, but I don’t. My hopes are always too high for Hold Steady records because I love this band with every fiber of my being. I’m never going to throw in the towel on these guys, but the writing might be on the wall that it’s time for these guys to move on to bigger and better things. I was distraught when keyboardist Franz Nicolay quit the band following Stay Positive, but I get it now. He said the band only wanted to do one thing, and he wanted to do other things. It’s tragic wishing your favorite band would break up, but at this point in the game I’m more looking forward to the next Craig Finn solo record than the next Hold Steady LP.

"I Hope This Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You"

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