By Eleni P. Austin
The word epiphany comes from the Greek, (of course!) Aside from the religious connotations, the word is defined as “an experience of sudden and strong realization.”
Musical epiphanies are few and far between. Sometimes an artist or band has them at the beginning of their career, like Marshall Crenshaw, Tracy Chapman and Liz Phair. Their debuts were flawless. All three artists have amassed a strong catalog of work, but never repeated that feat.
Sometimes it comes mid-career. Matthew Sweet had been kicking around the Athens, Georgia music scene for years before he produced his Power Pop masterpiece, Girlfriend. k.d. lang was four albums into her career before she released Ingenue. That record was a languid distillation of unrequited love, yearning and regret. The melodies and lang’s vocal style leaned closer to Julie London than lang’s original touchstone, Patsy Cline.
With The Hold Steady, their musical lightning bolt arrived with their third record, “boys and girls in America.” The album was an inspired pastiche of early Bruce Springsteen, Husker Du and Thin Lizzy. An unlikely combination, but the band made it work.
Somehow the lyrics subconsciously recalled the streetwise storytelling Springsteen perfected on “Born To Run,” (with hints of Tom Waits and Rickie Lee Jones thrown in). That blended with the Classic Rock synergy of Thin Lizzy and the sonic bursts of Husker-Du style Hardcore Punk.
The Hold Steady formed in Brooklyn, New York in in 2004. Singer/guitarist Craig Finn and guitarist Tad Kubler had recently relocated from Minneapolis, following the break-up of their band, Lifter Puller.
Craig Finn spent his formative years in Minneapolis, worshipping the Twin Cities Holy Trinity of Rock, Replacements, Husker Du and Soul Asylum. Lifter Puller aspired to that same style of shambolic genius.
In Brooklyn, Finn and Kubler hooked up with bassist, Galen Polivka and drummer Bobby Drake. A few months after they formed, The Hold Steady recorded their debut, Almost Killed Me. Multi-instrumentalist, (keyboards, accordion, harmonica) Franz Nicolai made a guest appearance on the album and was invited to join the band.
By 2005, The Hold Steady released their sophomore effort, Separation Sunday. It was a loose concept album following the exploits of Charlemagne, Holly (…her parents named her Hallelujah, the kids all called her Holly”), and Gideon. A pimp, a drug addict/prostitute/born again Christian and a skinhead, roam from town to town, party to party, searching for their next high.
Arriving in 2006, boys and girls in America was a stunning tour de force. Finn’s lyrics were dense and literate, referencing Jack Kerouac, (“there are nights when I think Sal Paradise was right, boys and girls in America have such a sad time together”). Despite the bummer sentiment, the melodies were sparkling and buoyant.
The instrumentation was sprinkled with glockenspiel and piano flourishes, along with soaring classic rock riffage. Craig Finn’s commanding song-speak took center stage. Whether he’s checking in on a chagrinned Holly, Gideon and Charlemagne, chronicling a post-o.d. make out session at a concert, or narrating a drug-fueled trip to the race track.
The album received rapt critical attention and commercial success. The band quickly followed with Stay Positive in 2008. Of course it was a let-down after the casual brilliance of boys and girls… It was much more polished, but the finished product felt weirdly overwrought and undernourished.
Franz Nicolay departed the band, but they soldiered on, releasing Heaven Is Whenever in 2010. Without Nicolay’s shimmery touches, the album returned them to their bar-band roots. The Hold Steady took a much needed break and Craig Finn released a solo album. Recorded in Austin Texas, Clear Heart Full Eyes was released in 2012 and exhibited a lean, Alt-Country vibe that belied his city-slicker angst.
Now after four years, The Hold Steady returns with their new album, Teeth Dreams. It’s off to a great start with “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You.” The track careens out of the speakers like a long lost Replacements song you kinda-sorta know.
Over a slingshot rhythm and growling guitars, Finn’s squirrely narration is already in progress: Reassuring a companion that his ex-running buddies, the Cityscape Skins, seem menacing, but are no longer threat. He doesn’t condone their racist beliefs, “For me it was mostly the music.” His rationale feels forced.
On “Spinners” and “Wait A While” Craig Finn drops his rebel pose and morphs into Dear Abby, offering advice to the lovelorn. The former opens with a fractious instrumental overture. The lyrics detail the mating rituals of the dance floor. A young girl in a big city is unlucky in love… (“heartache hurts but you can dance it off.”)
She’s a coquette while the music plays, “she cuddles up and spins aside.” But she keeps her emotions in check. The action shudders to a halt Finn as equates the dance floor a metaphor for life…” Once you’re out there everything’s possible, there might be a fight there might be a miracle/Loosen your grip, it feels so incredible.” Twin guitars kick in unspooling a series of fiery fills.
The melody of “Wait A While” shares musical DNA with Springsteen’s “Blinded By The Light.” Here Finn takes the opposite tack, instructing a heartbroken girl to take her time before plunging into another relationship…”Once they hear you’ve got a broken heart, they’re going to come around and make you smile/Little Girl you’re going to rush right in, why don’t you wait awhile.”
The best songs here are “The Only Thing,” “On WithThe Business,” “Big Cig” and “Runner’s High.” On “The Only Thing” whipcrack riffs ride roughshod over a pounding beat. Finn spins an opaque yarn concerning a former flame fallen on hard times, “She’s sleeping at a storage space by the airport, the only thing she talks about is TV.”
The lyrics for “On WithThe Business” are non-sequiter a go go! Powered by downstroke guitars that echo and sway, Finn apologizes for “ that prick in the parking lot” and rambles about “blood on the carpet and mud on the mattress,” basically litany of bad behavior. Even he admits its apocryphal… “I said a couple of things that probably weren’t technically true.”
Sharp staccato guitar licks and menacing bass lines anchor “Big Cig.” Finn is besotted by an enigma in a tight cocktail dress…”It’s not love, it’s not even a crush, that’s fine/Mostly I dig her and her big cig.” The impossibly catchy melody is accented by hooks that recall Brownsville Station’s homage to the illicit inhale, “Smoking In The Boys Room.”
Finally, “Runner’s High” tethers a friend’s dubious story of “guns, guts and glory” to a galloping gait. Finn’s skepticism is eclipsed by a pin-wheeling guitar solo.
Ideally, the closing tracks of an album, serve as a summation, or a quiet and introspective denouement for the action that precedes it. The final tracks here are stripped- down and subdued. But the results are dullsville.
“Amost Everything” is built around circuitous acoustic arpeggios but the song is all verse and no chorus. Worse than that, the melody bears an uncomfortable resemblance to Bon Jovi’s turgid cowboy ode, “Wanted Dead Or Alive.” (Insert puking sounds here).
Clocking in at nearly eight minutes, “Oaks” is a minor key waltz with promise. Unfortunately the track becomes mired in Finn’s stream-of-conscious ramble, as well as an endless “Freebird-y” guitar solo.
Sadly, Teeth Dreams is unsatisfactory on myriad levels. The most glaring mis-step is burying Craig Finn’s vocals deep in the mix. His wily adventures should be front and center.
Hopefully The Hold Steady can rebound from these artistic stumbles. As long as they still aspire to greatness, it’s still within their grasp.