Review Summary: We’ll still raise our glasses to the Gods of booze rock at Hold Steady gigs, it’s just that the band itself will no longer be the most blasted people present.
By now we pretty much know how a new Hold Steady album is going to play out. “Teeth Dreams” finds most of the bands formula (being the best band in every gin-soaked watering hole in the world) in alignment with the past, if only slightly reduced on the bombast scale. Front man Craig Finn’s reputation for being a parking lot poet, a beatnik-loving, hipster-baiting, downtrodden-female-worshipping, self-effacing genius who comes up with the kind of intellectual, snark-riddled word play only the rest of us can dream of is well preserved. Lead guitarist Tad Kubler may not riff as hard now that he’s able to actually play a gig without being propped up by a liter of vodka, but there are enough tasty licks on “Teeth Dreams” to satisfy the quota. The only glaring change is that The Hold Steady have finally figured out how to replace the enormous, Springsteen-ian piano flourishes that were lost at the departure of former pianist Franz Nicholay. Namely, they have traded in a small piece of the rock-out factor for enhanced melody, potentially a by-product of not only being the oldest guys at the frat party, but embracing the fact they have everyone there by at least two decades.
Lead single “I Hope This Whole Thing Doesn’t Frighten You” is by-the-numbers Hold Steady; riffs and bristling metaphors about the city, the night, and all of the characters reveling in its seedy underbelly. Aside from this ode to just about every song they’ve ever done, everything else on “Teeth Dreams” is slightly scaled back. Ballads “The Ambassador” and “Almost Everything” recall the same stories of bars and unrequited love seen throughout their discography, yet are well-executed moments that divide the album’s mid and closing section. “The Only Thing” sounds like it was ripped straight from a Gin Blossoms demo/boozing/self-loathing session from 1994. It has that jangly, infectious melodic guitar we heard on the “Hey Jealousy’s” of the world, and it works tremendously, to the point that despite its complete aversion to the band’s previous mantra of riff-laced rock, it might be one of their best songs. “Spinners” continues Finn’s overpowering obsession with tortured women, the city, and realizing the best way to address the problem is through an enormously catchy chorus. “Runners High” and “Wait Awhile” are melodic rockers that collide well with album closer “The Oaks,” a sprawling melodic ode to embracing inevitable change even if you’re too f*cking scared to leave it behind.
It’s true that while Finn and company slide into middle age, they’ve lost some of the snarl that catapulted them as legends. Despite the lack of anything resembling the “Party Pits,” the“Little Hoodrat Friends,” and “Constructive Summers” of yore, it’s encouraging that The Hold Steady are riding the inevitable crush of time gracefully. The party is still in play, it’s just more geared to the slow come-down of the night rather than its raging prime. Glory in its truest form can only be held for so long, and its better the band is still able to grasp a piece of it rather than completely crumbling under the weight of past triumphs. We’ll still raise our glasses to the Gods of booze rock at Hold Steady gigs, it’s just that the band itself will no longer be the most blasted people present. At least for now, that’s ok.