Ill get this out of the way right off the bat: I still miss Franz Nicolay. The Hold Steadys never quite had the same orchestral, E Street-style wall of sound since the keyboard player departed in 2010, and thats true of their latest release as well. That said, Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidges joint efforts on guitar lend Teeth Dreams (Razor & Tie) a fuller-fledged, shoulder-rattling rock vibe that well suits the groups latest collection of sardonic stories about often drugged-out sad sacks.
And speaking of that rogues gallery, theres no one on Teeth Dreams whos quite as vivid as the ODing couple from Chillout Tent or the slumming college girl of One for the Cutters, and thats probably the point. The characters frontman Craig Finn is warbling about this time around are a little longer in the tooth and more acutely aware of their encroaching lameness than their predecessors: Theyre getting too old for this &%$#!, and they know it.
Especially the women: Finn continues to paint vivid pictures of complicated female characters. Those include the girl with blood on the bed and the lights in her eyes from The Ambassador, a slow burner named for the dive bar where shes crashing (wasnt much diplomatic there, he wryly notes). Then theres the one from Big Cig with burns on her skirt and smoke in her eyes, and the girl for whom collecting boyfriends isn't such a healthy hobby from the chugging Wait a While.
Its always fascinating how Finn manages to imbue his songs troubled women with at least a modicum of dignity, while at the same time betraying the male narrators own petty jealousies -- and his exasperated talk-singing seems more perfectly matched than ever to the material. Overall, Teeth Dreams continues The Hold Steadys streak as rocks premier chronicler of a generation that doesnt realize the partys over.
LISTEN TO: Runners High and driving lead single I Hope This Whole Thing Didnt Frighten You are classic Hold Steady rave-ups.
Peter Chianca is editor in chief of Gatehouse Media New England's north-of-Boston newspapers and websites. Visit him at Pete's Pop Culture, Parenting & Pets Blog.