The Hold Steady return in a hail of guitars. Great, that’s exactly what I want from The Hold Steady. As much as they’ve engaged my enthusiasm for wordy guitar rock over the last few years, I have to admit that their previous album, Heaven is Whenever, was the one I had the most difficulty connecting with. Maybe it was the revision of their sound to a four piece following the departure of mustachioed keyboard icon Franz Nicolay, but it was the first Hold Steady album where I wasn’t sure if I liked it after the first listen.
New album Teeth Dreams is their second album after Nicolay’s departure and rather than recruit another piano pounder, they’ve bolstered their twin guitar line up to a trio with the addition of former Lucero man, Steve Selvidge alongside Tad Kubler and Craig Finn. The difference in sound is immediately obvious. Where on Heaven is Whenever there was a sonic void where the piano lines should have been, on Teeth Dreams, that void is filled with even more guitars than were utilised previously. It’s a much denser sound than before, maybe even a little claustrophobic, but how much of that is down to production technique alone I wouldn’t like to say.
Musically The Hold Steady are still spearheading a return to traditional rock music that seems to have gathered momentum in recent years and is one of those albums that could give hope to those rock fans still stuck somewhere between the late 60s and mid 70s who feel that modern music has nothing to offer to them anymore. Teeth Dreams is certainly the most guitar-heavy Hold Steady album for some time and it’s another album that seems ready made for soundtracking a road trip.
Lyrically it’s business as usual for Hold Steady vocalist Craig Finn, as it’s another narrative-heavy album based on tales of mistakes and redemption shot through with religious imagery. Those of us wishing for a return of the characters of Holly, Gideon and Charlemagne will be disappointed though, as those three characters that made regular appearances throughout The Hold Steady’s first three albums have seemingly been permanently retired.
Teeth Dreams has a feel of a unified statement that is lacking in so many modern rock albums and, once they’ve got used to the more dense sound, it will ensure that they maintain their place in the affections of their audience and the glossier sound may even win them new fans. Personally, I maybe miss a little of the dry, rough sound that was such a key part of the first two Hold Steady albums, as I do the use of repeated lyrical refrains and use of the band’s name in the lyrics whenever possible. Ultimately Teeth Dreams is an albums that grows on you and is a necessary evolutionary step in The Hold Steady’s career. Sure there’ll be fans who would much rather they’d acquired another keyboard player and continued to trot out facsimiles of their first three albums, but all bands need to change their sound over the years. Teeth Dreams is the sound of The Hold Steady regaining their confidence after becoming briefly confused by the departure of what had been a key part of their dynamic. It’s also a timely reminder that The Campaign for Real Rock is back on track and The Hold Steady remain a band you can believe in.