Thursday, April 3, 2014

Hold Steady, Part II

There is a Replacements song called “Treatment Bound.” It’s a freewheeling number; like most of their stuff it sometimes sounds sloppy and sometimes comes off tight, but most of all is just perpetually threatening to fall off the highwire. It took me a while to realize it, but Paul Westerberg and company weren’t beating their chests or telling fishing stories when they sang, “First thing we do when we pull up / get shiiiiiitfaced drunk / try to sober up.” They didn’t care about labels, hits, or SNL and even if The Mats didn’t live every single line they sang, at least they could have. With the recent release of Teeth Dreams, The Hold Steady’s sixth album, I’ve come to a similar realization about Minnesota-born but Brooklyn-bred group.

Sure, their band could be your life, but it really was their life. When Craig Finn, THS’s lead singer, begged you to ask her for Adderall, he was probably serious. And Stephanie may not have actually shown up to a party and puked in the sink, but she may as well have. Frankly, this is a little harrowing for me. I always enjoyed Finn’s lyrics and the twisted stories of sin and salvation he told, but I also confined them safely to the fictional lives of Holly, Charlemagne, and some guy who looked like Porky Pig. I guess that Finn was totally capable of driving the wrong way down 169 at one point in time should have been apparent much earlier, but for whatever reason it never was. That realization, borne both from Teeth as well as some of the media stories accompanying its release, definitely adds a lot more perspective and gravity to the first three albums that form the core of THS’s canon.

Teeth, however, sees the band finally emerge from the massive nights and killer parties and – similar to Finn’s solo effort – take a much different tone. It’s not melancholy and haunting in the same way that Clear Hearts Full Eyes was, but it’s also not punky and partying like their previous work. As far as production goes, there’s more effect rolled over practically all of Finn’s vocals and the guitars are heavier here than ever before. Really the whole album (including the cover) gives me a glossed-over steam-punk kinda vibe that is most apparent on “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” (the opener) and “On with the Business.” It’s not a motif I expected and it only serves to further separate this album from the previous five.

Let's face it, THS does not have a great track record when it comes to album covers. This is especially surprising when you consider their first album cover is phenomenal. 
“Wait Awhile” is among my favorite tracks and also the most indicative of the band’s new outlook: instead of the blow-by-blow of some girl partying away sixteen years of her life, Finn is giving advice to a young lady about always having a boyfriend. “Little girl you’re gonna rush right in / why don’t you wait a while.” Huh? That’s not to say the song doesn’t work (it does); it just goes to illustrate that this most definitely is not the same THS that I first heard crawl out of the speakers in Sean Kittridge’s Toyota.

Nevertheless, if you squint hard enough you can still make out the resemblance. On the bonus material’s “Records & Tapes” there’s more than a little vintage THS: the driving guitar, the nasally vocals, and (of course) those ever present allusions to rock-as-religion and twenty-something malaise. After all, “every story has a few different versions / you tell that one that makes you look better.” An old-fashioned Kubler riff also surfaces in the back half of the otherwise new school “Spinners.” Teeth follows the form of Almost Killed Me and Heaven is Whenever by slowing things down a bit at the close. I’ll confess that I don’t really get “Oaks” which clocks in at a mind-numbing 9:12. However, the penultimate number, “Almost Everything,” nails it and may be the strongest track on the album.

When you get down to it, this is probably my least favorite addition to THS’s catalog. Maybe it’s that the experiences Finn is describing just don’t feel as real, as urgent to me as before. The production certainly doesn’t help and Finn’s lyrics aren’t as blissfully precise as they were in the mid-aughts. But you know what? Bands, just like people, change – at least part of this is on me to adjust, not on Finn to enter cryostasis and perpetually preserve twenty-three for me. You can’t be a fan of this band (or any band really) and just expect them to keep churning out “Southtown Girls” and “Stuck Between Stations” until you’re ready to get married, have kids, and stop going to rock concerts. To be clear, there are strong points on this album that definitely make it worth a spin, but the real significance of Teeth is the sea change that it represents. This is no longer a band so hammered it might mistake William Butler Yeats for William Blake. Although THS is still singing about the ugly things, I’m no longer sure whether it’s a celebration or something else.

Again, this shift isn’t necessarily a bad thing and I give the band credit for having the guts to go through with it. In retrospect, I think that’s why a number of people panned the group’s previous release, Heaven. At the point of its release, THS was probably already grown up, but they hung on to tales of girls with a knack for playing the ponies and revivalist rock concerts because, hell man, that’s what they do. And despite some tracks on Heaven that could have held their own on a record like Separation Sunday, the act didn’t fool many people,. On Teeth the band drops the charade altogether and fully embraces a somber (and considerably more sober) outlook.

In the end, I guess THS are trying to do what Westerberg and company never could. Color me impressed for them having the guts to make such a radical (albeit genuine) move, but in the end Teeth still leaves me unsatisfied. It’s a completely adequate record, but not much more than that to the casual listener and likely a disappointment to die-hards and purists. This doesn’t sound like an album to blast in a bar – instead it sounds like something you’re more likely to hear in a coffee shop.

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