After spending the first half of their career writing songs about drinking with the wrong kind of people in the wrong kind of bars The Hold Steady suffered the mother of all hangovers on their massively underwhelming fifth album ‘Heaven Is Whenever’. Recovery from said hangover has not been quick, but after an extended absence the Minneapolis five-piece are finally back on track with a new album, ‘Teeth Dream’, their first in four years.
On first listen, this album feels very much as you were. The bar rock thump and rugged charm of old remains with the band sticking to the Replacements meets Springsteen style that’s served them so well. Scratch the surface a little though and there are subtle changes afoot. That rugged charm is a little less rugged with the band adopting a smoother and slicker sound than anything they’ve done before. Sadly it’s a little too overcooked. This band is at its best when it’s at its sloppiest, and some of their dog-eared allure is lost amidst all the smooth edges. Franz Nicolay’s absence doesn’t do the album any favours either. The keyboardist left prior to ‘Heaven Is Whenever’ and though he’s been replaced by an extra guitarist it doesn’t quite fill the void. Songs such as Ambassador would certainly benefit from his off-kilter playing style.
Production and the lack of Nicolay aside though, this is a fine album. Album opener I Hope This Whole Thing Doesn’t Frighten You stands up to anything on their classic albums. On With the Business does too; a Springsteen-eque anthem with an arena rock feel. Big Cigs is another highlight. The opening couplet of “she always smoked cigarettes/ ever since she was seven” is typical of Finn’s wry character observations. It’s that type of lyrical musing that makes the album special. His back alley poetry has long been a major part of the band’s appeal and the trend continues on this album, each song littered with an array of ne’er do well characters of questionable morals and values.
This isn’t quite a return to past glories but it is still a fine effort nonetheless. In reality the band are unlikely to write anything as good as ‘Boys and Girls in America’ again but this represents their best effort at trying to do so. It’s certainly good enough to make their show in the Academy this October a must-see.