Sunday, March 30, 2014

Gonna Walk Around and Drink Some More: The Legacy of The Hold Steady and the Stirring Rock and Roll Momentum of "Teeth Dreams"

“Before she figures out what’s wrong, they put another record on,” Craig Finn sings in “Spinners,” a poignant mid-tempo rocker from the latest Hold Steady LP, Teeth Dreams. It also more or less functions as a one-line approximation of exactly how Teeth Dreams is going to be perceived by the Hold Steady fanbase and by the critical music community as a whole, but in order to understand why that is, we have to venture back to 2010’s Heaven is Whenever, the most poorly received album in the band’s storied catalog, and the only one that most cred-obsessed hipsters wouldn’t want in their record collections. Prior to Heaven, this band was on the hottest of streaks. The middle two albums in the band’s initial four-disc run, 2005’s Separation Sunday and 2006’s Boys & Girls in America, arrived to rapturous reviews and Pitchfork “Best New Music” notices, their boozy swirls of anthemic E Street keys, blazing guitar riffs, and Finn’s barfly narratives simultaneously positing the Hold Steady as the drunkest and most literate rock band on the scene. Naturally, that fact made them a musical outfit rife for cult appreciation.

And cult appreciation is precisely what they’ve earned. I’ve never been to a Hold Steady show, but I can imagine the whole thing – from the sweaty hole-in-the-wall venues they play to the comfortable, intoxicated atmosphere of the enterprise – and it’s fucking majestic. These guys, the way they make music and the way they present it to their audience, it’s like they’re your brothers or the guys you went to college with. They make this loud, roof-raising rock ‘n’ roll, but when a show ends or an album stops spinning, you still feel like you could just sit down and have a beer with them (or better yet, help them pack up the gear and then head out to an all-night rager). And maybe that’s why the Hold Steady’s records have always appealed to me (though I was, admittedly, a little late to the party).

My first connection with this band came in late 2009, when I was a freshman in college and crashing my buddy’s radio show to raid the station’s extensive CD library. One of the spoils of that evening was Boys & Girls in America, partly because the colorful cover caught my eye and partly because another friend of mine had always recommended the Hold Steady based on my love for the Counting Crows. A cursory listen told me that the comparison to the Crows wasn’t on point enough to make me fall instantly in love, but not off-base enough to have me grimacing and shaking my head either. The same root elements were there: the Springsteenian songwriting styles, the classic rock arrangements, the emphasis on roaring guitar solos. But the moods were where things differed. Where August & Everything After – Counting Crows’ most seminal LP – opened in desolation on “Round Here,” Boys & Girls in America exploded out of the gate with “Stuck Between Stations,” this raucous, barnstorming rock song that was meant to be played in late-night bars. Yes, these two bands may have shared similar roots, but their ideologies could hardly have been more different. The Hold Steady wrote music for the party, while the Crows wrote music for the guy who didn’t get invited to the party. And as someone who has in turns been on both sides of that interchange, the dichotomy between those two ideas has never stopped fascinating me.

Of course, the Hold Steady had some catching up to do with the Crows if they were ever going to be one of my favorite bands. By the time I first pushed play on Boys & Girls in America, I’d been a fan of Counting Crows for as long as I could remember – so long, in fact, that “Mr. Jones” may be the first rock song I remember hearing. But as I went forward in college, I became more and more drawn to the music of Craig Finn and company. Though I discovered it in the fall, Boys & Girls didn’t get much play, predictably, until Michigan’s interminable winter broke. But man, do I remember when that happened, and I do I remember when the Hold Steady finally clicked. There’s something magical about spring on a college campus. Walking to class suddenly becomes a pleasure instead of a chore; students decide to let out all of the restlessness they’ve been building for months by staying out later, getting drunker, and making more noise and bad decisions than they have all year; and everyone throws their dorm/apartment/car windows open and blares the loudest music they can find to mark the occasion. For me, in my freshman year of college – and in every year after it – the loudest music I could find was always Boys & Girls in America.

That became the legacy of that record for me, and of the band as a whole. Even though the Hold Steady were never getting as much year-round play as a lot of my other favorite bands, when spring rolled around, there was nothing I wanted to hear more. The sound of this band became synonymous with the infectious feel of springtime on a college campus. Its absence was another negative factor surrounding my dreadful sophomore year, when it stayed snowy and fucking cold until the day I drove home at the end of April – obviously offering no space for a record like Boys & Girls to shine. It became the sound of my reward the next year, though, when temperatures soared into the 70s in March, convincing me to skip studying for a test one Thursday night to drink beer with my roommates on the porch. (Spoiler alert: this did not turn out well for me.) And the band also served as soundtrack for my surprisingly bittersweet senior year, when songs like “The Sweet Part of the City” and “Southtown Girls” rang through my car on warm, dusky drives home from campus during the last weeks of college, or when “Stuck Between Stations” became my “Let’s hit the Beer Exchange* and drink until 2 a.m.” anthem.

To put it simply, this band and their records – probably more than any other musical entity – encompassed the experience of my college years. That might explain why I have more attachment to Heaven is Whenever than just about anyone else, since that album pretty much became symbolic of the limitless possibilities I was feeling when I went home for the summer between my freshman and sophomore years. To me, that record and the way it shed the meticulous characterizations and lyrical depth of the Hold Steady’s earlier music, felt like the band’s take on Springsteen’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. Musically, it was more streamlined and conventional than anything the band had ever written, a fact helped along by the way Finn spoke in briefer and more generalized statements. The band’s decision to move away from detail was meant to facilitate greater relatability and to focus more on melody, and on pile-driving rockers like “The Weekenders” and “Hurricane J,” they certainly succeeded. To this day, Heaven is probably my second or third favorite Hold Steady record.

By the time Heaven is Whenever was out, though, it seemed like people were ready to stop showering the Hold Steady in critical accolades. The band had had a run of four great albums that just about everyone appreciated, and now, with album number five, it was time to start ascribing them the “past their prime” narrative. They were getting older; they were becoming fathers; they were toning down the partying and writing songs in a more conventional manner. For many people, those things meant that the Hold Steady were also done making transcendent music, which frankly, wasn’t the case at all. But once critics have locked into a narrative, it’s incredibly difficult to shake them from it. With Heaven, many wrote this band off, whether because Craig was losing touch with characters like Holly and Charlemagne or because keyboardist Franz Nicolay, a key player for most of the band's career, had decided to depart. And four years later, those same people are still writing the Hold Steady off, even though Teeth Dreams is every bit the stellar record that these guys have built a career out of making.

Part of the problem, of course, is the time gap, which brings me (at last) back to the line I used to start this essay. “Before she figures out what’s wrong, they put another record on.” That line from “Spinners” could have been the band’s mantra if it had truly wanted to reverse the less-than-flattering critical narrative given to Heaven is Whenever. The band could have immediately piled back into the studio, hired a keyboardist to replace Franz (which frankly, they should do anyway, preferably with Rami Jaffee of Wallflowers fame), and banged out a quick, rough, raw, and spontaneous record to restore the faith that the critical community once had in them. Instead, the band broke for four years, sending different members off on solo project exports, and giving fans and critics plenty of time to pick apart everything they thought was wrong with Heaven is Whenever.

The release gap between Heaven and Teeth Dreams, which stretched from May 3, 2010 to March 25, 2014, was by far the longest wait between Hold Steady records, and for a band that had started its career with three consecutive shots in 2004, 2005, or 2006, the extended delay made all the difference. Suddenly, Teeth Dreams was expected not only to shoulder the burden of following up the band’s least beloved album, but it also had to bear the weight of four years of expectations and doubts. I myself wondered if the album could possibly be able to handle the near-mythical legacy the band’s music now has in my life. But then I pressed play on Teeth Dreams for the first time, and instead of shaking my head and writing missives about how things just ain't like they used to be, my biggest complaint was that this record didn't drop a year ago to soundtrack one last college campus springtime for me.

Indeed, Teeth Dreams fits squarely in the band’s wheelhouse, generating the same sundrenched feel as their past records while simultaneously cultivating a sound and direction that is new for the band. The first half of the record is positively bulletproof, raging from the echoing, effect-laden first single (“I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”) to the cryptic teeth dream musings of album highlight “The Only Thing.” Finn’s lyrics, while they still haven’t returned to the specificity of the first four records, are as good as ever,  dreaming up philosophical poetry about “the American sadness” (the rousing “On with the Business”) or drawing up relatable characters whose stories are as worth hearing as ever (the divorcee in “Spinners,” who heads to the big city hoping to find a new life, the weatherworn road warriors of the dusky “Ambassador,” or the idiosyncratic love interest in “The Only Thing,” who lives in her storage space out by the airport and only talks about TV). Collectively, the first five tracks on Teeth Dreams might actually make up the strongest song-by-song run on any Hold Steady record, which is clearly no small feat.

The second half of the album isn’t nearly as strong. Of the three consecutive classic rock throwbacks that kick off side two (“Big Cig,” “Wait A While,” and “Runner’s High”), only the first makes something of its high-wattage Rolling Stones esque riffage. “Runner’s High” is innocuous, a decent enough album track that probably could have been a b-side, but works well enough here. “Wait A While,” on the other hand, is a jaunty but rather dull rocker that suffers from being a thematic retread of the far superior “You Can Make Him Like You” from Boys & Girls in America. Teeth Dreams still goes out on a high note, though, with the spooky acoustics of “Almost Everything” striking a different chord than the double-lead-guitar bombast of the rest of the record, and the canyon-sized “Oaks” stretching on for nine minutes of gorgeous, slow-burn majesty.

Is Teeth Dreams as good as Boys & Girls in America or Separation Sunday? No, not quite. The slick radio rock production (courtesy of Foo Fighters veteran Nick Raskulinecz) will turn a lot of people off, with ample vocal effects and excessive sonic compression that don’t do a lot to display the band’s live bar-band roots. The decision to add another lead guitarist will also earn mixed reception, not because Lucero veteran Steve Selvidge lacks chops (he's great), but because his presence turns Teeth Dreams into such a guitar rock record that it ends up being more repetitive than any of the Hold Steady’s previous work. It goes without saying at this point that Nicolay’s keyboard flourishes are missed. But the more adventurous elements the band explored on Heaven is Whenever to replace the keys, from the slide guitar of “The Sweet Part of the City” to the rollicking clarinet solo of “Barely Breathing,” are absent here as well, and as a result, Teeth Dreams feels considerably safer and more stagnant than its predecessor. The songs are still aces though, and with the weather finally heating up for the spring, I anticipate that this record will only continue to open up. After all, I haven’t even gotten to take it for a windows-down drive yet, and that's the essential rite of passage for any Hold Steady record.

*The Kalamazoo Beer Exchange is the best college bar in the country. 

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