Album Reviews

The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams

on March 21, 2014, 12:01am
Hold Steady Teeth D
Release Date
March 25, 2014
Label
Washington Square
Formats
digital, vinyl, cd

There are many great lines that Craig Finn has offered up with a grin, shrugged shoulders, spit raining down on a pile of sweaty dudes — and maybe a stray girl — all of whom are shouting his words back to him or finishing hanging phrases in call and response. But of all the razor sharp, knowingly dark, and often wise-beyond-his-and-our-years-combined lines, “In dying at least he didn’t have to deal with new wave for a second time” sticks out.

At the time, 2005, when Separation Sunday came out, that line spoke to the music scene, with The Killers, and The Bravery, and She Wants Revenge. But to many of us at the time, The Hold Steady also sounded like the music of a previous generation, like the music we were trying to get away from with our Arcade Fire. Few people I know liked The Hold Steady on first listen, but slowly, one at a time, everyone seemed to come around, realizing that pounding beers in a car outside a wedding just made more sense when listening to “Multitude of Casualties”.

A decade later and we might be less likely to pound beers on any occasion, but that doesn’t mean we want our music to reflect that. In fact, most people as they age will listen to music to get back to that packed car, to get back to feeling young, and that’s what The Hold Steady felt like to begin with, guys regaining their departing youth, happy to share what they learned, well aware that the world hasn’t changed much since they were getting in trouble in the alley behind the bar, or the bathroom of a party where no one knows the host.

Teeth Dreams speaks nothing to why The Hold Steady were successful, to why they meant so much to a small, very vocal part of the population. Hell, they even got a shoutout from Hurley on Lost. I don’t remember the gang from Lost talking about Arcade Fire ever. Now, gone are all the stakes; where Finn used to sing about youth, and our relationships with each other, and the darkness we see each other visit, Teeth Dreams never gives you much reason to care about anything you are hearing.

Opener “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” is a near hit, with a relatively inviting hook, though the verse does bite its cadence from their own title track off Stay Positive. The problem remains in the subject matter. The song is about a skinhead gang and viewing that scene as a former participant, now from from the outside. And whereas there was some universal ability to relate to Finn’s past subject matter, no matter how druggy or bloody it got, most of the highly specific references here and the song’s internal conflict fall on deaf ears, and it’s hard to imagine many finding much to relate to in the words. And even the central idea, the “hope this whole thing doesn’t frighten you,” seems preposterous with lines like “they got masks for gas and they’re sleeping in their bulletproof vests.” If those things don’t frighten you, I’d hate to see what you dream about at night. Probably not teeth.

On recent albums, Finn has started writing less about youth and more about what comes next. The characters from Finn’s early songs, Charlemagne and Hallelujah and Gideon, they weren’t bound to have great lives as they got older, and predictably, Finn’s songs of hope for these types just don’t sound so hopeful. Whether it was “Hurricane J” or “Rock Problems” on the last album, “Spinners” and “The Only Thing” on this one, his narratives have some wisdom in them, and sadness, and maybe even an occasional glimmer of hope, but even at their strongest, there is a mundanity to the subject matter (and unfortunately to the music) that makes it all sort of a drag.

From the sloppy production and uninspired arrangements to the fact that Tad Kubler hasn’t written a memorable guitar lead since 2008, Teeth Dreams sounds like the characters in its songs: past its prime and just trying to get by, but with the past creeping back in and not letting anyone forget it. Any time Finn refers to a past Hold Steady track, like “The Only Thing” and its “Slapped Actress” throwback to “dust in the spotlight,” they come off as obligatory, like the band is forced to sit through a conversation with an old friend where the past keeps popping up no matter how hard they try to move on. Teeth Dreams is an album that screams “we have grown up” and “we want to write about something else” — or possibly just assumes their audience has grown up and is pandering to that idea — and it finds Finn looking in a dry well. Maybe he’s known the people that he’s writing about, but not well enough that we ever think we know them.

It’s hard to say where The Hold Steady lost what made them great, or even good. Maybe it was when Franz Nicolay left a month before the announcement of Heaven Is Whenever. Nicolay referred to his work with the band as a “closed book,” like maybe something was already gone and he just followed suit. The dropoff of these last two albums, plus Finn’s solo LP, supports the book being closed after Stay Positive. Seeing the band decline, seeing all of your favorite bands decline, is one of the drags of being a music fan. Sometimes it’s impossible to admit seeing good things end, and we’re left clamoring for a return of what made something good, making the greatest critics seem like spoiled, stubborn children. It’s probably akin to Finn’s hearing new wave for the second time.

Growing up and getting older, your favorite bands can remain great, your friends can remain optimistic and beautiful, and the complications have yet to take any joy you feel and put a price tag on it. There is something to be said for those that toil through and try to to work things out, like there is something to be said for The Hold Steady surviving to make this bad album. That’s an awfully lucky and rare outcome, though. For the rest of us, there are silver linings to a band dying young (though nothing silver enough to make going through the death easy). Listening to Teeth Dreams makes Nicolay’s knowledge of when a story is over make a lot of sense.

Essential Tracks: “Spinners”, “The Only Thing”

38 comments

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hey_yo_dflo
July 5, 2014 at 2:38 am

First of all, music is subjective, so it’s cool if Philip doesn’t like the record. But my main issue with his review is that there are no real specifics provided for why “The Hold Steady lost what made them great”, which I think is a requirement if you’re going to trash the record. Instead, generalities like “sloppy production” and “uninspired arrangements” are cited. This review also typifies why artists who experience universal acclaim early in their careers are doomed as time goes on – critics will always compare subsequent albums to BAGIA, which is a masterpiece that stands as one of the great albums of the last decade. Teeth Dreams doesn’t attempt to dishonestly capture the vibe of that record or SP, and I don’t think the band should be penalized for that.

What I DO agree with is that the band has lost the sense of drama it had during the Franz years. There aren’t as many euphoric, melodic moments on Teeth Dreams as there were on records Franz played on – e.g. the organ arpeggio on the 3rd verse of Multitude of Casualties, the piano texturing on Stuck Between Stations, or the timeless riff on the bridge of Constructive Summer. Steve is a great addition to the band and some the guitar interplay between he and Tad is truly mind-blowing (see: bridge of I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You, chorus of The Only Thing, verses of Big Cig), but he lacks the gift for melody and drama that Franz brought to the table.

J True
May 28, 2014 at 7:01 pm

The essence of what is being said here is true. This band is a spent creative force. Reading the comments, I’m not surprised to see the die-hards ripping the review. That is why they call them die-hards, after all. But sometimes things are what they appear to be. THS has clearly lost their edge. It’s been nearly four years since Heaven Is Whenever and after all this time they give us an album that is nothing less than a case study in the concept of all form and no content. Move along folks, nothing to see here.

Mike Kraemer
May 23, 2014 at 1:11 am

Essentials are spot on.

Sasha Geffen
May 8, 2014 at 7:00 pm

can’t believe the author doesn’t like swans smh

Paul
May 8, 2014 at 4:22 pm

What an awful and condescending review (comment on typo was even more immature). If you decided you weren’t going to like the album before you listened to it, why even bother doing a review? Just a bad review to a pretty good (not great, but pretty damn good) album.

Philip Cosores (@Philip_Cosores)
May 8, 2014 at 5:09 pm

Gotta disagree Paul. I would have LOVED to like this album. Sep Sun and BAGIA are two all time faves, so you are off there. Also, it’s my job to review albums so even if I did “decide I didn’t like it before I heard it,” that is why I would bother: because it is my job to bother. Sorry you didn’t like the review, maybe you’ll like some of the other ones on the site. Thanks for the feedback!

thrillhouse1285
March 28, 2014 at 7:14 pm

As a huge Hold Steady fan, I have to say I agree with the review and the grade. NOT the “return to form” that it’s being hailed as.

Sanford May
March 25, 2014 at 9:09 am

I should add, as a backup option if you’re burning up deadline and don’t have the time or inclination to fact check, give the record a C, not a D. That way your review won’t light up a red 25 on Metacritic and attract attention. We’re a polarized society these days. The poles get tourists. Nobody comes to see you if you’re in the middle.

Philip Cosores
March 25, 2014 at 10:22 am

It’s a typo when you mistake similar words. They happen all the time. But give me another speech about it, this is beyond entertaining.

Sanford May
March 25, 2014 at 3:13 pm

Sure. Mistaking your for you’re, that’s a typo. Unless it’s a bad grammatical error but generally speaking it’s a typo. Mistaking Charlemagne for Constantine. Similar words? They both start with C and they were both leaders, albeit about half a millennium apart. By your standards confusing Cromwell and Churchill is a typo. What’s Stacked Actors? Typo by alliteration?

Look, it’s not entirely your fault. You started getting your stuff published in an era of sloppy editing and for the most part casual attention to detail. Scandalous mistakes that flash past in an instant. Forget no one remembers tomorrow. No one remembers in an hour. And I don’t know but I suspect there’s no one at CoS backing you up. There’s no particularly knowledgeable editor between you and the post button.

My first job out of college was doing PR for an organization where screwing up substantial matters of fact, they didn’t fire you, they set you on fire. That inspired checking and rechecking and documenting to the end of the earth. If somehow you did screw up your only salvation was begging for mercy. If you claimed typo, well then they set you on fire and threw you out a 20th floor window. I’m not saying that’s the best way to learn writing for publication. It was a pretty tense few years with some ridiculously mean hours in there. One deal I slept maybe two hours in three days. That’s not good for you. But I did learn that it’s worth the time to avoid screwing up and when I did screw up, and I certainly did screw up big a couple times, cop to it straight out and don’t put it off on the flipping keyboard.

You know, of course, carry on as you please. But know that in pop music criticism the point is not making your case to people who already agree with you. They agree with you. They don’t care two bits how many mistakes you make espousing the very same opinion they hold. The point is making your case to people whose tendency is to disagree with you, often out of a misplaced sense of loyalty to a band. If you believe what you wrote about Teeth Dreams, and I think you do, it doesn’t serve the band or the band’s fans to write something else, something that will be more favorably received by the devoted. But make the sorts of mistakes you did and the devoted will pillory you for what you wrote and then summarily dismiss every word of it. Folks on the fence, truly looking for your advice, they’ll probably skip the slapping you in irons and whipping you, but they’ll ignore your opinion and for good reason. And you’ll have no defense to any of it, either. Typo is not a defense. Typo is an excuse. Even if these were typos and they were not.

Josh Keefe
March 25, 2014 at 7:26 am

I just listened to this album. I’m a huge Hold Steady fan, and I really feel like you hit the nail on the head. There’s nothing interesting here. It’s not bad, but it’s almost like I would have preferred it to be because I would’ve at least liked to have seen them take a chance on something somewhere. I actually found myself missing parts of Heaven is Whenever, because that album at least tried different things musically. This feels like Kubler is just playing guitar hero now, like the rest of the band doesn’t matter anymore. Give me one moment where the guitar isn’t the focal point. Give me one clever bassline. This used to be a band and it feels more and more like a two man act with a backing band. I love these guys, I do, but they really aren’t close to the band they were after Franz left. I think every Hold Steady fan knows that and has known it for quite some time. I’ll always go and see them whenever I can because they still kill live shows and because some of their songs make me want to jump out of my skin when I hear them live. Their music used to be so vibrant. I guess we can’t ask for too much of them, they did put together one of the best four-album runs of all time, and, as far as I’m concerned, owned the 2000′s.

When your favorite band begins to fall off, you aren’t really disappointed in them as much as you are disappointed in yourself for growing old, for not staying cutting edge, for allowing yourself to get sentimental. As Finn says “Getting older makes It harder to remember/We are our only saviors.”

Philip Cosores
March 25, 2014 at 10:26 am

Nice insight, I agree with most everything here, except the part about being disappointed in ourselves. I am disappointed when a band’s taste level falls off and they can’t tell high quality from shit. But not in me, mostly in them. I understand not making great music as when ages, but not thinking that your declining talent is as good as it used to be,

Philip Cosores
March 24, 2014 at 2:59 pm

Are you okay?

Matt
March 24, 2014 at 3:43 pm

Well, yes, Im actually really well/happy thanks, and although I obviously detect your intention to make a humourous remark, to deflect from the absolute pummeling your latest work has taken, ill briefly explain why.

I have three days off work coming up. From a job Im actually good at and that I earn good money doing. Im well respected in my field. I work 20 hours a week, and when Im not working or spending time with my son and partner I spend time listening to and enjoying various types of music. So yes, Im wonderful.

Are you ok Phil?

Philip Cosores
March 24, 2014 at 5:58 pm

Yup. I’m pretty okay. Enjoy your downtime.

Philip Cosores
March 24, 2014 at 10:54 am

wow.

Matt
March 24, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Wow indeed! Same reaction I had after reading your embarrassing first paragraph complete with misquoted lyrics! By the time we’d had constantine and stacked actors I was blushing for you and could hardly read on. That was a wow moment.

And then when I thought it couldnt get any worse, you tried to be all insightful and talk about how when the band were great, or at least good, there was this “…universal ability to relate to finns past subject matter”. As opposed to now, on this “bad album” where no one will relate to this “skinhead gang”. You really couldnt have picked a worse example, or have better highlighted your lack of knowledge of the band, as this opening track is the most heavily laden with subject matter from past albums! Thats the whole point of the song! That was really wow-worthy.

So in summary, your comment really does sum up your whole review better than any of the replies youve had. And the fact that you somehow manage to scratch a living by writing inane drivel criticising writers with more talent in their daily bowel movements than you possess in your entire being, well, all i can say to THAT is….

Wow.

David Shapiro
March 23, 2014 at 6:04 pm

I am not judging you for having an opinion on an album, and not giving only positive reviews. Carry On.

Philip Cosores
March 23, 2014 at 11:04 pm

I appreciate that, thank you.

Matt
March 24, 2014 at 9:39 am

Although i completely disagree with your opinion on this album, i wont criticise it as of course its all subjective. This makes music critics and album reviews two of the most pointless things in the known universe. What i will criticise however is your style of critique (ironic or what?). Making out you are a long term fan or at the very least familiar with the bands catalogue, which as others have pointed out you are obviously not, adds a certain weight to your opinions which might make some readers of this review think you actually have a point of reference that makes your opinion actually worthwhile and representative of other long term Hold Steady fans.

So yea, while most critics are largely pointless and not worthy of any kind of recognition, you sir are worse than them and deserved the two minutes of my life it took to write this.

Adam Lubicz
March 22, 2014 at 5:36 pm

When is COS review of foster the people supermodel coming out?

Philip Cosores
March 23, 2014 at 2:09 pm

Not sure, but I’d imagine this week.

Adam Lubicz
March 21, 2014 at 8:11 pm

Philip, didn’t realize its been 5 years. I clicked on your name and I just saw the last few reviews. St Vincents new album is amazing I loved it. Sorry if I was a little pissed this got such a negative review. Look forward to more reviews from you.

Philip Cosores
March 21, 2014 at 9:14 pm

Yeah, when they changed sites, I think some of the author attribution is still being fixed. Either way, thanks for reading, any feedback is welcome, and if some people like this album, that makes me happy.

ar
March 21, 2014 at 7:58 pm

You spend a lot of time talking about what this album is not, and virtually no time discussing what it is or the music it contains. This is an historicist’s article, simply placing this album in a linear progress of albums while affording zero attention to its internal phenomena. You make the claim, “It’s hard to say where The Hold Steady lost what made them great, or even good.” However, if you make this claim, it is very literally your job to be able to discuss why this has happened, or else you aren’t worth your salt as a music critic. You cannot simply give a record a “D” and back it up with subjective arguments whose evidence comprises solely your disappointment that bands change over time. And for the record, I am not writing this response in defense of the album, as I haven’t heard it yet. I like this website’s reviews, but this is poor writing. I am not even convinced that you have listened to this record; the only song you reference is the single, which came out months ago.

Phillip Corpses
March 21, 2014 at 7:14 pm

You gave this album the same thing I gave your mom. The D.

Jon
March 21, 2014 at 4:44 pm

You’re completely missing the point in your review…

Mark Moses
March 21, 2014 at 12:50 pm

Yet another, god awful, “let me translate this work into a story all about myself,” nonsense, Phillip Cosores review.

Jimmy Bags
March 21, 2014 at 11:38 am

Eat my fuck.

Mark Moses
March 21, 2014 at 12:49 pm

Yet another, god awful, “let me translate this work into a story all about myself,” nonsense, Phillip Cosores review.

lungtrap
March 21, 2014 at 11:07 am

Your review is full of misinformation regarding not only what The Hold Steady has done in the past but what they have achieved with Teeth Dreams. It is you that should receive the grade of D for your writing that is riddled with mistakes. Teeth Dreams is an incredible album that will find its place on many best of lists come December. Tad Kubler and Co. not only bring the rock but they tell you how they got rocked. Put down the Roman history, stop playing the Foo Fighters and give With Teeth another spin or two.

PJ
March 21, 2014 at 9:51 am

Constantine? Stacked Actors? It makes it really hard to take your review/opinion seriously when you can’t even get basic facts from the band’s back catalog right.

Adam Lubicz
March 21, 2014 at 5:32 pm

That was my first thought exactly. I know Philip hasn’t reviewed a lot for COS, but when his review of Breaking Bells came out, I thought it was a tad harsh. Even though I didn’t enjoy the album a whole lot, it deserved a C at the least. What Philip is for COS is what Ian Cohen is for Pitchfork. If the publication doesn’t necessarily like a band, they give it to that said reviewer to talk about the band in general instead of the latest album that the said reviewer is reviewing.

Philip Cosores
March 21, 2014 at 6:16 pm

Adam, that’s not true. First of all, I’ve reviewed a ton of albums for CoS, going back nearly five years. Next, the site LOVES the band. And finally, I’ve had this assigned for months. Sorry the last few reviews have been negative, but I write plenty of positive reviews. I recently reviewed St. Vincent. I liked it.

Sanford May
March 23, 2014 at 6:55 am

I wish somebody would post this review as it was originally published without the cherry-picked and unacknowledged revision for apparently pretty wild errors of fact because all I noticed was the writer refers to Holly as Hallelujah and most people who know the Hold Steady don’t do that. It’s like referring to Jimmy Stewart as James Stewart. It doesn’t convey familiarity with the material but it’s not outright wrong. If Philip here got Charlemagne as Constantine and “Slapped Actress” as “Stacked Actors” the whole review goes out the window, no matter how valid his points could have been. A big problem with Internet criticism. It’s unreasonable to expect media critics to remember every single detail of every single catalog item but it’s not unreasonable to expect them to LOOK IT UP.

Philip Cosores
March 23, 2014 at 2:07 pm

I’m sorry for the two typos. Please forgive me.

Sanford May
March 25, 2014 at 9:06 am

Those aren’t fairly typos, Philip. Charlemane is a typo. Slaped Actres is a couple typos. But what have you have there are errors of fact. Errors of fact in a draft don’t reasonably call your critical opinion about a particular record into question. Failing to vet your work for mistakes and correct those mistakes before publishing is what calls your critical opinion into question. Correcting your mistakes before I read them, if I later found out they were there, this tells me, I know the band well enough but I can’t know everything, and I know I can’t know everything, so I carefully check my facts. Leaving them in tells me you’re talking out the side of your head.

For the record — pardon the pun — per Teeth Dreams, it’s no Separation Sunday or Boys And Girls In America, not even a Stay Positive. But like you wrote pretty dead on, nobody really loves a Hold Steady album right off the bat. You have to listen to it a lot, sometimes a whole lot, before you come around. I haven’t listened enough to get there or not get there, though at the moment I’d say your opinion is far too harsh. It’s a better record than I expected. Still, I don’t think it’s anything to gush over as the comeback full-length and perhaps more moderate and better presented versions of the points you make are valid.

To wit: In five years you should’ve learned you can’t put stuff like that out there in a review with your name on it. People who love the record are going to beat you up over it. People who hate the record are going to beat you up over it. You’re going to get beat up. Avoid getting beat up. Google or something.

Philip Cosores
March 21, 2014 at 4:38 am

I forgot an anecdote in this review. Wanted to mention that one of the highlights of my life was telling Mackenzie Phillips about “Cattle and the Creeping Things.” She was strangely flattered.