Stereo matters on Teeth Dreams, the sixth studio album by the Hold Steady. The album starts with an insistent guitar line on the right and a snare drum socking along with it dead center, buttonholing a listener for five urgent seconds before a second guitar chimes in to fill the space on the left. It’s an announcement not only of the song’s first guitar hooks — with more to follow — but also of the way the Hold Steady has boldly rebuilt its music from within.
The band’s essence is still the voice and words of Craig Finn, an elliptical storyteller who sings (and talk-sings) with a robust grit that unabashedly echoes Bruce Springsteen and Elvis Costello. Finn has never left behind his formative years in Minneapolis, which supply the bruised and shady characters for his songs: Catholic-schooled, unstable, mixed-up, drugged, tenacious, yearning. “We scratch and we scrape/We’re scared then we’re brave,” he sums up in Oaks, the album’s stately finale.
Teeth Dreams expands Finn’s roster of misfits and uncertain strivers. There are women who have been through a lot and are braced for more, like the compulsive party girl in Spinners who decides, “Everything’s possible/There might be a fight, there might be a miracle.” And there are narrators whose violent past associations are catching up with them. In On With the Business — apparently not a legit business — Finn warns, “We should probably cruise” as he admits, “I said a couple of things that probably weren’t technically true.” Every adverb counts.
Over the past decade, the Hold Steady built itself a unanimous blare of a sound: brawny barroom riffs that spanned the keyboard-and-guitar solidarity of the E Street Band and the post-punk drive of Husker Du. But in 2010, the Hold Steady’s keyboardist, Franz Nikolay, left the band and was replaced by a guitarist, Steve Selvidge, who now works in tandem with the Hold Steady’s founding lead guitarist, Tad Kubler, and Finn on rhythm guitar.
The shake-up — and a new producer, Nick Raskulinecz, who has worked with Foo Fighters and Rush — reconfigures the Hold Steady from single-impact riffing to riff architecture that exults in stereo. The new songs are constructed cleanly and strategically as they hurtle forward: guitars placed high and low, conversing back and forth, interlocking in syncopation or cooperating to push a song from both left and right. It’s a more intricate embrace of the 1970s guitar rock that the Hold Steady has always prized, but it’s also a leap forward. As the instruments grapple, talk back and realign, all of the characters’ mixed motives and dire circumstances are diagrammed right into the music.
— JON PARELES, NY Times News Service
What made synth-pop so radical the first time around was its tension between dry delivery and ecstatic release, between true machines and true heart. Three decades later, those things aren’t in opposition anymore, so when one arrives without the other, it’s news.
Future Islands, a Baltimore band, has split them asunder on Singles, its moody, pulpy fourth album. The synth-pop skeletons here are alluring: Singles succeeds in accessing the unconscious pleasures associated with the cold percussion and computer melodies of the early-mid-1980s.
But then there’s the frontman, Samuel T. Herring, more a moaner than a singer, who never quite gets to the release on this album that, despite its adeptness, ultimately comes off as restrained. Sometimes, on songs like Light House, his reserve takes on an almost British quality, accent included. This persists, despite the apparent depth of feeling on Spirit and Doves (“And I feel it go/What we held so slow/Goes so quickly”), or the lushness of Like the Moon. Herring nails the hurt, but never leavens it.