Tuesday, April 22, 2014

The Hold Steady Steer Into The Slide

Allow me ponder a topic that's been sticking in my craw for awhile:

"Solid album" is what fans of a band say about a record that doesn't live up to their hopes but nonetheless scratches their itch for now.  It means there isn't a run of, or even a couple great songs, just ten that you like but don't love.  It means "not for the non-believers."  It is a late period John Irving novel.

"Solid album" means don't worry about missing out.

Which brings us to the long-awaited Teeth Dreams.  (The wait was somewhat lessened by Craig Finn's recent solo album.) Their big-money \m/RAWK\m/ producer a-hole, *who'd previously never heard of them!!!* decided to bury Craig's vocals.  Which, uh, what?  His stories, set against Tad Kubler's previously-awesome sense of dynamics, were the bedrock of this band.

Long-gone are Hallelujah, Gideon and Charlemagne, replaced by nameless low-rent hoods whose stories are hard to care about.  Craig still manages to get out some great lines, but damn if his verses aren't obscured by the new, 2nd lead guitarist (yes, I'm blaming the dude from Lucero for this.)  And Superproducer managed to turn the vintage warm, muscle-car and six-pack guitar tone of years past into plain greyspace.

The last two Hold Steady albums were regarded as letdowns:  inevitable, after the dizzingly high of Boys and Girls in America.  Stay Positive had some weird detours (Harpsichord yo!) but also some all-timers, notably the title track, Constructive Summer, and the show-stopper "Lord, I'm Discouraged."  Heaven is Whenever lacked some inspiration, but made up for it with buckets of beautiful Replacements jangle.  Teeth Dreams is fine while it's on, but unfortunately you WILL struggle to remember any songs, excepting possibly the closer "Oaks" if only because a nine-minute slow-burn closer leaves more questions than answers.

U-turn time: possibly that the problem is mine, not theirs.  Many of my favorite bands are in this period of their career, where an album is less an urgent document to publish before death than a good excuse to get out on tour again.  Which I should be grateful for.  The Hold Steady, to their eternal credit, played a dive-y old bar here in St. Louis last month, instead of the theater they easily could have commanded.  Allegiance to the roughnecks instead of the NPR, let's-get-a-babysitter set, is damned admirable at this point.  I'm sure merch sales were dismal.  They would have been better if I could have gotten a ticket, but the Stubhub prices were stupid.

I bet these songs sound awesome live.  Next time, please, let's pick a producer who knows what you're supposed to sound like.

In the spirit of positivity:

Top Five Hold Steady Albums

5. Stay Positive
4. Almost Killed Me
3. Serparation Sunday
2. Boys and Girls in America
1. A Positive Rage (Live double album, with Ask Her for Adderall.  Hell Yes.)