On new album, The Hold Steady bare their “Teeth”

The Hold Steady – Teeth Dreams (Positive Jams/Washington Square)

Teeth Dreams Album CoverI thought about how to best collect my thoughts on Teeth Dreams, the sixth album by The Hold Steady, for several weeks after I first heard it. I’m intrinsically tied to the band in more ways than I can articulate, so giving anything less than my feelings surrounding this release would feel totally inauthentic. It’s probably best to start with some context.

Heaven is Whenever was the sound of transition. A lot was happening with the band in 2010. Keyboardist Franz Nicolay had left, taking with him the barroom drama that permeated their first four records. Sonically, they took many chances with instrumentation and production that took the focus away from the trademark guitar element and focused more on atmospherics. The result was admirable, but came away feeling a lot less like a Hold Steady record than anything that preceded it. Less celebration, more darkness. The scene seemed a little less sunny.

That wasn’t the only change. The album’s first tour showed the band trying out a six-piece three-guitar, bass and keys lineup. It didn’t quite gel as much as it powered through each show with sheer force. By winter, they’d pared down to a five-piece. Steve Selvidge was installed as a full time member, bringing with him guitar texturization and muscle that wasn’t present with Tad Kubler and Craig Finn’s previous interplay. Just like that, the band pivoted from ‘bar band’ to ‘guitar band’.

You wouldn’t have picked up on the change if you didn’t see them live in the interim. For many, Heaven felt like an abdication, going from one knockout record after another to something that felt less full and more like it was compensating for a missing element. Perhaps that was the case, but it could also be said it was also the product of trying to do too much in too little time in the face of major change.

But here we are four years later with Teeth Dreams. To put how long that is into context: in that time, their contemporaries Guided By Voices got back together and released five new albums while singer Robert Pollard put out SEVEN of his own. Sure, it’s an extreme example, but it’s not entirely far off. These guys made their name trying to keep up with Uncle Bob in more ways than one at some point in their career.

The album begins with the propulsive rocker, “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You”, which quickly gives way to the shimmering “Spinners”. Here Finn sings “Heartbreak hurts, but you can dance it off,” Full of bright guitars and a propane-fueled solo, it’s the closest thing The Hold Steady has ever written as a crossover hit.

Next up is “The Only Thing”, a slice of jangle pop infused with organ by studio musician Al Gamble that’s both a wink to their past as well as a distillation of present. It’s a dexterous move by the band, a song only accomplished by a few years away from recording, and in turn it is one of the album’s best.

Speaking of highlights, “On With The Business” comes at the album’s midpoint. Here, Finn reaches “maximum Craig”, spitting a dizzying array of lyrics (“Blood on the carpet/mud on the mattress/waking up with that American sadness”) over anxious guitars, building towards a vocal delay bit that replicates his lyrical repetition off mic at their live show. Finally, it segues into an absolutely face-melting guitar solo.

The Hold Steady in 2014Overall, the album showcases another layer of depth that was not apparent in previous Hold Steady recordings. This is for a few reasons. Producer Nick Raskulinecz, who admittedly did not know much about the band prior to recording, seemed to instinctively know how to handle the band’s lineup and play best to their strengths. The guitar duo of Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge provide stunning guitar textures, while bassist Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake (who has never sounded better) re-establish themselves as one of rock’s best rhythm sections.

While this collection of songs mostly focuses on loud, immediate rock and roll, the emotional one-two punch of “Almost Everything” and album closer “Oaks” cannot be understated. “Almost Everything” is a quiet ballad that is a sonic cousin with earlier songs like “First Night” and “Lord I’m Discouraged”. While it doesn’t crest quite like those songs, it’s just as beautiful.

There is nothing The Hold Steady has ever created like “Oaks”. Clocking in at over nine minutes, it’s a sprawling masterwork that kneads and twists through peaks and valleys, with Finn conjuring dreamlike images as the song turns the corner with a gorgeous melodic solo carrying the song through its final minutes. Kubler stated that at one point he felt that this would be the last record he’d make with Finn. If this were goodbye, it’s a hell of a way to go. While there has always been sentimentality in Hold Steady songs, this one feels like it has real stakes. It’s just heavier.

For a band that looked like they may not make another record, Teeth Dreams is an album that pulls off an impressive magic trick. It’s a return to form for a group that looked like they lost their way, while alternately showcasing who they are now. Ultimately, it’s a portrait of a band that has the gift of hindsight and the confidence to make changes when they’re most critical. We benefit from it, and they’re better for it.

The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

John Darnielle can be a frustrating dude. The highs are high: 2005’s “The Sunset Tree”stands tall as a bonafide masterpiece, but the lows are just as low – try the heavy handed 2009’s “The Life of the World to Come” if you’re curious. It seems that every other Mountain Goats record hits a high note. Last year’s “All Eternals Deck” was fine, but it doesn’t come close to the mastery of their latest, “Transcendental Youth”.

In the two distinct eras of this band – the pre-2002 low-fi boombox recordings and the subsequent studio recordings, Darnielle’s catalog is a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. There’s a startling emotional undercurrent to his work, and here it clicks perfectly.

Horns are all over the album, from the upbeat ‘Cry for Judas’ to the meditative dirge of ‘White Cedar’. It’s lovely, lush with it’s perfectly timed swells. Followed by the acoustic ‘Until I Am Whole’ it creates a great compliment to the previous track’s delicateness. ‘The Diaz Brothers’ is a propellant number that’s akin to Mountain Goats classics like ‘This Year’ and ‘Dance Music’, and the title track has a horn intro that wouldn’t be out of place in a fifties sitcom.

Unlike some of it’s predecessors, none of the elements of ”Transcendental Youth” are overbearing. That’s plagued some of their previous albums. Every arrangement is carefully chosen. There’s no ‘square peg in a round hole’ effect that comes with some of Darnielle’s songwriting. This album plays like a hits collection from the studio-recorded era of this band.

“Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive,” advises Darnielle at the beginning of ‘Amy (aka Spent Gladiator 1)’. Those are pretty wise words. Maybe with album after album that’s what he was doing.

This time, he got it right.

The Men – Open Your Heart

The Men – Open Your Heart

There’s something special about a group that entirely shifts their sound from one record to another. Brooklyn-based The Men are one of those bands. With their new record, Open Your Heart, it’s apparent that it’s miles away from 2010’s Immaculada and last year’s Leave Home both in sonics and songcraft.

Tuneage instead of tonnage is the real story here. For the uninitiated, the prior two albums were variants of blue-in-the-face scuzz rock, low on songcraft and high on volume. (Stuff not for the faint at heart, but if you want to try it, “Night Landing” will surely be disorienting.) Their latest is anything but. They have have ditched that formula for something way more basic, and brawnier. There’s no better example than the album’s title track, a Let It Be-era Replacements cataclysm. Strong on hooks, pleading vocals and an earworm of a bass line, there’s no reason it’s not a song-of-the-year candidate. “Turn It Around,” the album opener, is four minutes of fist pumping heroism and an undeniable show-opener. “I wanna…” choruses and wild soloing will ignite crowds everywhere. Then there’s the oddly named “Country Song,” which sounds more like incidental music from Friday Night Lights than it’s namesake. (“Candy,” which comes later on the album would be more aptly named.)

What’s most impressive about this album may not be the songs themselves. It might be the fact that the band that created it was able to turn out a release so confident in a sound that is nothing like they’ve released before. It also leaves those to wonder what’s next for The Men. They’re a band that’s yet to peak, and every record they’ve made is a fine example of that. Open Your Heart isn’t just a clever title. It’s a request.

For Lucero, It’s Not Work

Lucero – Women & Work

Lucero are on a hot streak. While they’ve made dependable records with tracks that absolutely slay, it wasn’t until 2009’s 1372 Overton Park did they create an album that fully combined their rough-hewn songcraft with hooks that last for days. Punctuated by Memphis horns and Ben Nichols signature rasp, the record was nothing short of an instant classic, and this year’s Women & Work expounds on the work the last record started. “Downtown (Intro)” is a great table setter for the pulsating “On My Way Downtown”. Singer/guitarist Ben Nichols showcases his sandy croon on the drowsy balladeering of “When I Was Young”, later followed by the ragtime rave-up “Like Lightning”, this album’s best entry into their already impressive canon.

Unlike many of their roots-punk contemporaries, Lucero has had a half-decade head start in record making. With that, they’ve accomplished something rare in the genre: shaving down the rough edges of their material without actually sounding like it. It’s a tribute to the band’s decade-and-a-half together, showing that after all this time, they’re actually just getting started.

Top 10 Albums of 2011

Top Ten Albums of 2011

1. David Comes to Life – Fucked Up
2. Killing The Darlings – Pearl and the Beard
3. Bon Iver – Bon Iver
4. Wild Flag – Wild Flag
5. Long Live All Of Us – Glossary
6. Strange Mercy – St. Vincent
7. The King is Dead – The Decemberists
8. Civilian – Wye Oak
9. Nine Types of Light – TV on the Radio
10. The Whole Love – Wilco

Kings Without a Crown

Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative album as  “The Throne” will survive buoyed on the lofty expectations and reputations of the people that made it. Watch The Throne is not a good album. In fact, it’s not a halfway decent album. It’s microwaved hip-hop for an audience that expects something oven-baked. 

Unsurprisingly, the production is real swing-for-the-fences, bombastic stuff. From the triumphant horns of “Lift Off” to the skitter stop beats and violins of “Welcome To The Jungle”, there’s little room for subtlety. There’s an exception or two, notably “No Church In The Wild” It prowls, propelled by the all-star performance by Odd Future crooner Frank Ocean. There’s underlying menace in the hazy synths and fuzzy bass thumps. Yes, the album sounds huge, the performances are not.  Still, it’s remarkable to listen to a record by artists that are renowned for their wordplay, and to find so few that are memorable. So much vanishes into the ether here. There’s not one track that really has a truly great hook. 

There’s no better example than the first single, “Otis”. Kanye’s usually the master of sample re-appropriation. Here, he just abandons it completely. It’s a simple slice-and-dice of “Try A Little Tenderness” with few flourishes, leaving the rapid-fire verses between the two rappers to sound like a mixtape castoff. This off-the-cuff approach works well on rock records, but given the scope of the production on the rest of the record, it’s lazy.  

That’s alarming, considering Kanye’s track record. ‘Kanye the Artist’ is an entirely different person than ‘Kanye the Superstar’. In public, he can come off as angry and self-absorbed. In the studio, no one pays as close attention to detail and nuance as him. His productions are usually thick, densely layered compositions. There’s not that same feeling here with this material. He’s abandoned that approach to placate Jay-Z, who all too often hides behind his braggadocio and expensive beats. He hasn’t been the same rapper since his 2006 return. To ape from the sports metaphors he so often uses, he’s like late-period Griffey. A fine athlete when he’s healthy, but he’s no longer the kid with sweet swing. Given the right track, the right collaborator, and the right frame of mind, the flashes of brilliance spark, reminding listeners that the old man still has game. Not enough to last an entire season, though. 

Make no mistake, Jay-Z and Kanye West are two of the past decade’s most important artists. Jay was untouchable during his initial 1996-2003 run, and that’s before Kanye got rolling with arguably the best five-album streak of any hip-hop artist. West has always been a big picture guy, preferring to make albums over hit singles and a bunch of filler. It’s art. Jay-Z is a guy that values commerce over art. Age has shifted his viewpoint. He’ll always only have one foot in the pool. Ultimately, what Watch The Throne shows two people with major ideological differences attempting to unite with one vision – and failing.