It's the dream of every band to produce a record that's an instant hit and becomes a modern classic. But it's also a curse.
The Hold Steady made waves with their sophomore release Separation Sunday, but it was their third, Boys and Girls in America that took the rock and roll world by storm. Craig Finn's previous band Lifter Puller had a solid following, especially in their birthplace of Minneapolis, but they were weird–odd time signatures, synths, Finn rambling on in a speaking voice about drinking, drugs and the music scene. When The Hold Steady started up and eventually relocated to New York City, they adopted a bar rock sound that was embraced by fans of guitar music of all stripes. Finn continued to ramble on in a speaking voice about drinking, drugs and the music scene, spinning fantastic stories of junkies, punks, parties and religious awakenings. But with Boys and Girls he tried out something new: singing. People, for the most part, like melody. They had always had melodic guitar leads, but now they had hooks to go with the fantastic lyrics. It was easier to sing along to Finn spinning tales than it was to talk rhythmically sort of with the beat. Also, the addition of Franz Nicolay added a whole new level of melody and countermelody with his keyboard playing, and he added interesting textures with his backup vocals, leading crowd singalongs full of "woah"s.
Now ever since, the band is stuck having their records stacked up against Boys and Girls by listeners and critics. Their last album, Heaven is Whenever was their first without Nicolay, and it put a noticeable hurt on the band. While Dan Neustadt of World/Inferno Friendship Society contributed keys, Nicolay's passion was absent. The album found them sounding thin and uninspired save a few tracks like "Hurricane J," and it was the first time a Hold Steady album wasn't on immediate constant rotation for me.
Teeth Dreams is the band's first album with the addition of former Lucero guitarist Steve Selvidge, and it shows these old dudes still have some fight left in them. Finn's wordplay and storylines are as good as ever, and while he is still singing, he sometimes breaks into his old-school rants which mixes it up nice. Lead guitarist Tad Kubler, whose riffs on Heaven mostly seemed like recycled, AC/DC-lite progressions, are sounding inventive again. The bar-rock and classic rock sound can be restricting for a guitarist–the lines come easily, but unique lines not so much. Here, he experiments with new tones and tunings as well, and lays back on a couple great ballads like the 9-minute closer "Oaks." The second-longest track, "Spinners," has a kickass solo near the end, though I'm not sure if it was performed by Kubler or Selvidge.
As far as the title goes, I figured it was about the common anxiety dreams some people have in which their teeth fall out. Finn confirms this in the Spotify commentary intro to "The Only Thing," which contains the titular line. Kubler adds that the song is in open G, so for you guitar nerds, that's a common slide guitar/lap steel tuning as well as banjo tuning. he says they used it on Heaven's "Sweet Part of the City," one of the better tracks on that record. Selvidge's songwriting contribution comes in "Runner's High," which ends up great with the verses sounding like, "Hey, I'm in the Hold Steady now, here's a Hold Steady-type riff" and the intro and chorus going in a jangly, chorus-pedal direction, a different twist for the group.
I feel Teeth Dreams nearly matches Stay Positive, my third-favorite Hold Steady album, and the biggest downside is the long-winded nature of the songs. Only one track on the entire thing is under 4 minutes. For comparison, Boys and Girls had 10 out of the 13 tracks under the 4-minute mark.
I will refrain from using the music journalist cliche that this album is "a return to form", because while it a return to their kickass selves prior to Heaven, it's not the same form as those records. While they still fall under the classic rock umbrella (they always wanted to be The Band), there has been a steady progression, and Teeth Dreams find the veterans settling in nicely to their keyboard-less shoes. This is the Hold Steady's guitar album, in a discography full of guitar albums. Crank it.