“Steady” Decline Continues on “Teeth Dreams”

The Hold Steady-Teeth Dreams-Washington Square-2 STARS

hold steady teeth dreams cover
Courtesy Washington Square

What’s a bar band, anyway? For a decade, The Hold Steady has drawn the label and merited none of its meanings: lazy songwriting, middling musicianship, and vanilla lyrics. The Brooklyn quintet’s frontman Craig Finn has a talent for worldbuilding that rivals that of artistic collaborator George R. R. Martin, spinning Kerouacian stories about wayfaring Catholic junkies who make pipes out of Pringles cans and spit white noise when they kiss. As Finn sings on “Separation Sunday,” the band’s sophomore effort, “We mix our own mythologies; we push them out through PA systems.”

Change that line to the past tense and you’d get a pretty good epitaph, too—which The Hold Steady might need sooner rather than later. On “Teeth Dreams,” the band’s sixth album, they sound destined for the worst kind of artistic death: a slow, comfortable decline into uncreativity and irrelevance. Think Smashing Pumpkins. Think Pixies. Think (gulp) Weezer. Now, of all times, The Hold Steady is finally starting to sound like a bar band.


In itself, “Teeth Dreams” is no catastrophe—it’s a below average, boring rock album, just like the one it follows in The Hold Steady’s discography, “Heaven Is Whenever.” Unfortunately for Finn and company, after nailing their first four records (“Almost Killed Me” through “Stay Positive”), they get graded on that curve. And compared to those albums, “Teeth Dreams” just feels like it’s been done before. The nine-minute album closer “Oaks” is a hodgepodge of reheated Hold Steady melodies whose chorus features the group’s least endearing reference yet to their own name (“Keep the speed steady / Hold the wheel straight”). The riff that runs throughout “Wait Awhile” is almost a carbon copy of the nine-year-old one from “Chicago Seemed Tired Last Night.” Even Finn’s lyrics seem slightly self-parodying at this point: “Big Cig” actually starts with the lines “She says she always smokes cigarettes / Ever since she was seven / She always likes the big ones best / You get more for your money.”

I’d have more to say about the lyrics on “Teeth Dreams,” but the album’s cluttered mix and unnecessary addition of second guitarist Steve Selvidge makes it pretty difficult to distinguish Craig Finn’s vocals. When you can hear them, though, they’re not delivering the same wistful, detailed narratives that found The Hold Steady its most devoted fans. The chorus of “On with the Business” is an empty exercise in à la carte heaviness: “Blood on the carpet / Mud on the mattress / Waking up with that American sadness... Pledge of Allegiance / War of attrition / So many choices: decisions, decisions.”

“Teeth Dreams” has some decent songs, especially the auspiciously acoustic “Almost Everything” and the power ballad “The Ambassador,” but none that would have cracked the final track listing on one of The Hold Steady’s best albums. Whatever you want to attribute the band’s decline to—the departure of keyboardist and creative genius Franz Nicolay in 2010, Craig Finn’s burgeoning solo career, or a simple lack of new ideas—it’s happening, and it’s depressing. To paraphrase a decade-old Hold Steady track that seems completely foreign at this stage, certain songs get scratched into our souls—but not the ones on “Teeth Dreams.”

—Staff writer Will Holub-Moorman can be reached at