This is a big call, but I don’t think any other band has redefined rock and roll more in the last decade or so than The Hold Steady… At least according to my record collection, anyway. The Hold Steady was a name I heard quoted by a lot of the cool kids and rock snobs before I finally gave them a chance. That chance was their 2006 release, Boys and Girls in America. It didn’t grab straight away. In fact, I don’t think I made it through the first track on at least three separate attempts. But once I made myself power through, I think I was a fully committed convert by the end of track 2. By the end of that same week, I’d listened to everything they’d released at that time and couldn’t wait for them to come to Australia so I could witness The Hold Steady for myself.
It’s been four years and a pretty awesome solo album from lead singer Craig Finn since the last album form The Hold Steady, and Teeth Dreams might be the biggest evolutionary step the band has ever taken. Opening with I Hope the Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You, Finn is the most melodious I’ve ever him. And during the verses, the guitars of Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge even have a hint of The Edge in U2’s eighties heyday.
Spinners shows that Finn is still adept at writing lyrics that sound like they’ve been adapted from some great novel. He did the long form, storytelling thing with their 2005 release Separation Sunday, a concept album following the tribulations of a hooker / junky / Christian. That was impressive, but I find it even more impressive that Finn brings that same magnitude and fully realised world to stand alone songs on Teeth Dreams, just as effectively as did when he had the indulgence of an entire concept album.
In the world of The Hold Steady, everyone is a hooker, or a junky, or a Christian, or a gutter punk, or a music scenester, just doing their best to get by. And while lyrically these people have always seemed to live in the classic rock and punk rock worlds of the eighties that spawned The Hold Steady, Teeth Dreams is their first album to musically pay tribute to this time as well. The sound is much more of a throwback than anything they’ve done before, and it’s a great addition to their arsenal.
The surprises keep coming with Big Cig, a departure in some ways, with its distorted bass from Galen Polivka and heavier sound, but classic Hold Steady at the same time, with its talk-singing vocals and vintage rock guitars, complete with a solo that even Slash might think was one of his own.
When Teeth Dreams slows down, we get Almost Everything, the closest I’ve ever heard this band come to tender. Soft acoustic guitars, Finn gently emoting more than he’s ever gently emoted, with none of the seedy undertones of the world he normally sings about. It’s the perfect precursor to album closer Oaks, a slow burn that seems like a reflection on everything that came before. Funnily enough, it almost sounds like Killer Parties, the closer of their debut album Almost Killed Me, if Killer Parties was written ten years later by someone ten years older.
This is a different version of The Hold Steady than I’ve heard on any of their other albums. It’s not better a version, but it’s in way worse version either. Just different. A decade and six albums in, most bands have either stagnated to keep the faithful happy, or made sweeping changes that alienate old fans and may or may not find new ones. Teeth Dreams is enough of a departure to reassure us that they’re not getting bored and are still looking for ways to grow, while giving fans enough of what they’ve always loved so they don’t feel forgotten or left out. I like The Hold Steady as much as ever, now it’s just for different reasons.