The Hold Steady
(Positive Jams/Washington Square)
4 out of 5 stars
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The Hold Steady have acknowledged the rut into which they felt their music had plunged on their last album, 2010’s Heaven Is Whenever. After a four-year hiatus and some personnel changes, one might expect the band to make big changes to their sound. It’s perhaps ironic then that their quasi-comeback succeeds precisely because it doubles down on all the things fans loved about them in the first place. Chant-along choruses, cathartic guitars and drums, and Craig Finn’s tales of disaffected Minnesota youth are all in heavy rotation on Teeth Dreams; it just seems the band has relocated their enthusiasm for this powerhouse formula.
Steve Selvidge has joined as a full-time member, pairing with Tad Kubler in a twin-guitar attack. They certainly bring the thunder, although Finn’s wordy narratives sometimes struggle for daylight. Luckily, the acoustic prettiness of “Almost Everything” and the bass-driven “Big Cig” yield more spacious settings and provide variety from the arena-rattling pleasures of “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” and “The Only Thing.”
Finn can still sketch pretty girls who are in way over their heads in the big, harsh city as well as anyone, as he does on standouts like “Spinners” and “The Ambassador.” And he still effortlessly turns phrases that evoke the wonder and wastefulness of streetlife like ’73-vintage Springsteen: “Once you’re out there anything’s possible/There might be a fight, there might be a miracle.”
Some folks might wonder when and if the band will widen their scope like The Boss did in his own career. But when they get it just right, as on Teeth Dreams’ epic closer “Oaks” with Finn at his most fetchingly doomed and Kubler furiously soloing in the coda, those ne’er-do-well kids on the corners seem to represent the whole human race majestically skidding into oblivion. The Hold Steady need not ever deviate from such a potent product.