TeethDreams1897822_10152785160906777_1513369919_nI love how Brooklyn’s The Hold Steady can be enjoyed on different levels. Essentially a party band, the live shows feel like gatherings of like-minded people in attendance to drink some beers and share a love of rock. There’s a real sense of community. Look deeper, though, and listeners can quickly lose themselves in the universe created by lyricist/singer/guitarist Craig Finn. The night life there is exciting, but it’s often a dark, druggy and dangerous place.

Set against a backdrop of the U.S. hardcore punk scene, the records tell stories that mostly revolve around three main characters. Troubled teenager Holly is a “real sweet girl who’s made some not-sweet friends” like tattooed gang member, Gideon, and Charlemagne, a drug dealer/pimp.

These days the characters are not mentioned by name because Finn decided, around the time of the band’s fourth record, Stay Positive, to leave more to the imagination so that listeners can invite more of themselves into the songs. Happily, for newcomers to the band, there will be no sense on brand-new record, Teeth Dreams, of having landed in a fiction novel part-way through. For long-time fans, what is for sure is that, despite the lack of character names, Finn provides clues as to which songs relate to which other songs, both current and on previous LPs.

Compared to the band’s other records the most striking deviation here is in terms of the production. Not having worked with the band before, producer Nick Raskulinecz has taken a different approach to his predecessors. Finn’s vocals are quite sibilant when he sings, so past producers would do some work on the recordings to smooth the edges whilst still retaining a direct, untampered-with sound. Fans are sure to be split on whether or not they prefer Raskulinecz’s method of putting effects on Finn’s vocals in the studio and placing them lower in the mix. I’ll reserve final judgement on the overall sound of the album until I’ve heard a vinyl version, but such is the studio treatment of the vocals and instruments on Teeth Dreams, even when playing back through 100 W speakers I still get a vague impression of listening through an extremely powerful mobile phone.

Whilst Finn’s literate and streetwise lyrics get most of the attention and are more closely related to hip hop than to alt rock, founding lead guitarist Tad Kubler is key to the band’s musical power and creativity and no less essential to what I consider to be the greatness of this band. Together they seem to create music that provides the rushes of euphoria that the songs’ inhabitants look for from their pills and powders.

‘Spinners’, a song previewed online before the album’s release, reaches the heady heights of uptempo tracks from the back catalogue like ‘Ask Her for Adderall’ and ‘Same Kooks’, although the mood here is much more sensitive as the heartbroken female protagonist rides the train into the city to meet friends, have drinks, dance and look for a new boy. The ‘Spinners’ girl could well be a more mature Jesse, who features on the under-rated Heaven Is Whenever LP. Although she’s trying hard and is reassured by her friends that “heartbreak hurts but you can dance it off,” she doesn’t yet seem ready to move on from her last relationship.

Perhaps she would be better taking the advice offered to the girl in ‘Wait a While’, another fast song about a heartbroken girl. The girl in ‘Big Cig’, a classic Hold Steady song and one of my favourites on the record, is more of a femme fatale type with pills in her purse, “burns on her skirt and smoke in her eyes”. The narrator digs her, but “it’s not love, it’s not even a crush,” he tells himself.

Not all of the songs are about girls. ‘On With the Business’ refers to “that American sadness” of consumerism, as the song’s druggy characters try in vain to find happiness with credit cards and “beautiful kitchens”. In the opening song we encounter some of the scarier guys from a resurgent hardcore scene, and in ‘Runner’s High’ a guy gets hit on the head and is “left to bleed to death in the vestibule”.

The band is bashing out some sprightly tempos, but it’s a tense record, and Finn has talked in interviews about the main themes of Teeth Dreams as being anxiety, truth and how they relate to each other – “tales from the modern age,” he says. Seeing the original painting of The Scream in Oslo’s Munch Museum, Finn pondered whether anxiety is even more prevalent in today’s society than at the time of the painting’s creation more than a century ago.

So as a record that’s arguably darker in subject matter than their other LPs, a benefit of the production is that the sprinkling of sugar provides some light to the presentation. Raskulinecz’s studio work also lends a dream-like quality to the whole record, tying in with the “dreams” of the title and recalling ‘A Slight Discomfort’, the stunning closing song on Heaven.

As far as closing songs go, ‘Oaks’ keeps up The Hold Steady’s run of concluding their records with a song that leaves me open-mouthed in a did-I-really-just-hear-that? sense of wonder that remains after repeated listens. The characters on ‘Oaks’ are more mature than we are used to, yet they still spend a lot of their time cruising the streets for kids selling drugs, and they have that restlessness that is generally familiar to the people in the band’s songs. The gorgeous ending to the track features echo on Finn’s vocals as the characters dream of escaping the town for the lakes and tree-covered mountains.

10 out of 11

Release Date 24/03/2014 (Washington Square)

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Steve Jones

Apart from about five years in total, I've always lived in Manchester. Shame about the weather and lack of beach, but I do like it here. My all-time favourite gig would have to be The National at the Academy in about 2010, although I did get Matt Berninger's mic cable wrapped around my neck (that was a close one). My guilty pleasures include the music of Bruce Springsteen, and I also felt a bit bad for feeling such joy at seeing Counting Crows live in the early 2000s. I recommend Lifter Puller, a rather obnoxious and unpleasant-sounding band that I can't seem to get enough of, even though they are long disbanded. Amongst my Silent Radio gigs, I was blown away by John Murry. I'll let you know if anything tops that one.