One of the worst tragedies to befall the Hold Steady was Craig Finn’s decision to sing. When the band burst out of the Twin Cities in the mid ’00s, he barked his lyrics like postmillennial Beat poetry, spitting skewed rhymes about drugs, parties, scenes and salvation as the band hammered out extra-strength bar-band riffs. On 2006′s Boys & Girls in America, Finn tested out a tentative croon, which not only lacked the command of his speak-singing voice, it actually changed the way he penned lyrics, which have gradually become more deliberate and structured when they once sounded like he’d overheard them at all-ages shows and scrawled them down on ticket stubs.
The Hold Steady’s recent albums — and Finn’s 2012 solo debut, Clear Heart Full Eyes — have shown diminishing returns, but the band is far too wily and smart to hit rock bottom. Teeth Dreams, their sixth studio album, disappoints as a whole but has a few keepers. Writing in Memphis and recording in Nashville with producer Nick Raskulinecz (Foo Fighters, Evanescence), the band has buffed away many of its remaining eccentricities, leaving a capable if workmanlike unit. The guitars are swathed in just enough reverb to dull their impact on opener “I Hope This Whole Thing Didn’t Frighten You” and wan closer “Oaks.” As a result Teeth Dreams sounds too polite, with little of the Freudian anxiety implied by the album title (a David Foster Wallace reference).
Fortunately, Finn remains obsessed with American transience and salvation. “On With the Business” may or may not be about drug dealers operating out of abandoned McMansions, but Finn provides just enough information (“bountiful chemicals, beautiful kitchens”) to suggest a much more pervasive anomie. On “Big Cig” he creates a sharply forlorn chorus hook for a romantically desperate narrator, in love with a woman who smokes ridiculously long Malibu 120s. “You get more for your money,” she explains. That kind of expert detail makes it impossible to dismiss Finn or the Hold Steady, but it also makes the nearly good Teeth Dreams more tragic than bad. It could have easily been so much better.