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.
Singles captures an eclectic band doubling down on one of its ideas, one which had been a high point of its last two albums, On the Water and particularly the strong In Evening Air (both on Thrill Jockey).
But it’s worth remembering this is a band with varied inclinations, which peek through in a few spots on this album. Herring unleashes some deep, dark death metal growls on Fall From Grace. And he also raps, apparently. Maybe his true pleasures are still waiting to be unearthed.
— JON CARAMANICA, NY Times News Service
The Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso, now 71, has extrapolated from bossa nova, his truest musical precedent, with the force of a Kabbalist. He’s written open, clear love songs; he’s made some abstruse sound art; he’s made elder-statesman records, with strings, enshrining his own imagist poetry or his historical theories about Brazil.
But for his last three records, he’s reduced his sound to himself and a tight electric backing trio: Pedro Sa on guitar, Ricardo Dias Gomes on bass and keyboards, and Marcelo Callado on drums. The band’s sound, switching up between rock beats and reductions of Afro-Brazilian funk, challenges Veloso, pushing him to escape old sentimentalities and perhaps invent new ones.
The latest, Abracaco (A Big Hug) is being described by its record company as the end of a trilogy. It’s not an overwhelming experience, by design; it’s modest in its weirdness. But it’s the best of the three.
It’s only now having its proper release in the US, with a translated lyric sheet, so that you can read words like “Indigestible woman/Heaven is all you deserve.” And also so that you can track down his many references: among them, Carlos Marighella, the Brazilian Marxist (and the hero of Um Comunista, a somber, 8 1/2-minute song about political utopianism at the center of this record); Bob Dylan; the Japanese-Brazilian mixed-martial artist Lyoto Machida; and Joao Gilberto, the hero of a praise-song with the title A Bossa Nova e Foda, which translates to a vulgar thumbs-up to Veloso’s favorite music.
The two records before Abracaco — Ce and Zii e Zie — relied more heavily on needling, repetitious musical ideas, and on provocative or ill-tempered lyrics; though Veloso’s singing and Sa’s careful bits of psychedelic guitar playing brought warmth into it, you could sense that this was almost a sentiment-deprivation exercise. By now, the whole enterprise has evened out, found its median state. The melodic and vocal tenderness in ballads that distinguishes some of Veloso’s best work from the past is here — in Vinco and Quando o Galo Cantou, which are also this record’s most forthright sex songs — as well as his moodiness, word games, celebratory chants and comic lust. Meanwhile, the backing band hasn’t lost its dry, concise identity. It’s all here.
— BEN RATLIFF, NY Times News Service