Teeth Dreams once again sees The Hold Steady’s Springsteen-ish world of lovable degenerate barflies crossing paths. But their first album in four years also comes with a couple personnel changes. Franz Nicolay – aka closet-klezmer moustache-keyboardist – left to focus on solo work, but was replaced by another guitarist. It’s a notable change for “America’s best bar band.” To borrow from a completely unrelated band and song title, irony’s on stage, here: “Let’s Play Guitar in a Five Guitar Band.”
Guitars may be a big part of THS’s heartland sound, but the sheer density created by three of them just adds to the macho and slightly dated rep that the instrument has gotten in recent time – particularly during harmonized classic rock riffs (“Wait A While“) or axe solos (“Big Cig“). In short, the album toes the delicate line between “still got it” in terms of honest, vulnerable, vice-medicated “anxieties” and rock that still somehow keeps our attention to tired cliches – an impression likely due to all those guitars.
Which is a shame, because Finn’s tales, even at their worst, are still really enjoyable while hitting a little close to home. In one lighter, lesser instance, Finn “can’t take [the main character] seriously” thanks to her “Big Cig[s]” and the “pharmacy” in her purse. In another, he simply throws a few humorous jabs at what can be best described as a slut who isn’t aware that “there are other words than ‘yes’” in “Wait a While.” Even in this album’s stories that are one-offs or just less compelling than the rest, he’s still permanently on lyrical fire.
And that continues through some of his characters’ development over these last few albums, a strength that threads all the way back to Finn’s work in Lifter Puller. On the opening track, “Sweet Payne“‘s Gideon (or some other narrator who also was in the Cityscape Skins gang) has cleaned up somewhat and cringes at his new partner’s witnessing his former, violent-punk cohorts, with numerous references to previous tracks about the same bunch: [LISTEN]
It’s not necessarily that three guitars, while sonically weighty, automatically makes for a muddled or self-indulgent mess. Nor that this album deserves extreme insults such as those by any means. It’s just that the present five-piece setup lacks some of their blue-collar, Springsteen-indebted narratives, and just sounds like a rock band – one with three guitars.