The Hold Steady
(Razor & Tie; 2014)
By David M. Goldstein | 15 April 2014
Good album producers are like good sports team owners: you don’t notice them. At best, they can be positive facilitators, but the spotlight remains predominantly on the band or ball club in question. The St. Louis Cardinals and Seattle Seahawks are two of the best run, most successful sports franchises of the past few years, and I’m pretty sure nobody outside of the core fanbase has any idea who owns them. But then you’ve got flaming train wrecks like the Dallas Cowboys and Washington Redskins, and there isn’t a single Joe Sports Brah in the country who doesn’t know who Jerry Jones and Dan Snyder are; both petty multi-millionaires with zero idea about properly performing their job duties aside from getting a sufficient amount of television and/or back page tabloid face time. Fans of the New York Knicks and Miami Marlins (all seventeen of them) can relate too.
And this pertains to Craig Finn and Tad Kubler how? Well, I wish I could devote the entirety of this review to praising Finn’s songwriting, as Teeth Dreams does arguably contain the man’s finest bag of tunes since the watershed Boys & Girls in America (2006), with the choruses to match. It’s a far less sluggish album than the unwieldy Heaven is Whenever (2010), and devoid of the two or three obvious clunkers (looking at YOU, “Joke About Jamaica”) that dragged down Stay Positive (2008). Heck, “Wait a While” could even be the Hold Steady’s single most satisfying song since “Stuck Between Stations,” with goofy ’80s arena rock radio riffs that remind me of both the song and video for .38 Special’s “Caught Up in You,” which makes having a mullet and downing Budweiser longnecks in a video arcade seem like the greatest thing in the world.
But sadly, I have to waste valuable ink and brain cells expounding on the production values on Teeth Dreams, which, like Dan Snyder’s front office decisions and racial insensitivity, are simply too crappy to ignore. Because for reasons that God may choose to reveal on the Day of Judgment, Teeth Dreams somehow ended up being produced by hesher extraordinaire Nick Raskulinecz. Careful CMG readers will note that this is not the first time yours truly has griped about the man’s questionable production choices, and I blanched upon learning that he would be behind the boards here. Now he can add screwing up the Hold Steady to his glowing resume, right below compressing Rush to within an inch of their lives and crying on camera in Dave Grohl’s Sound City documentary.
It’s been reported that prior to getting the Teeth Dreams gig, Raskulinecz had never heard the Hold Steady before, but that still offers zero justification for a murky mix that buries Craig Finn’s vocals, to the point where the listener strains to make out his words. Take a second to let that sink in; Craig Finn’s voice requires effort to be heard? How is that not professional malpractice? Then there’s the guitar sound of Tad Kubler and new addition Steve Selvidge; sanded down to an over-compressed pile of gray that sounds bizarrely similar to the washed-out hues of Rush’s Alex Lifeson in ’80s synth-pop mode. “On With the Business” in particular wastes one of Finn’s greatest choruses in years by burying it under a wall of ’80s prog-rock mush taken wholesale from the latter’s Grace Under Pressure (1984); Rush’s Cold War-era paranoia record, and best understood as a product of its time.
And if it seems like I’m somewhat hung up on Me-Decade Rush here, it’s only because that springs from the era of ’80s arena rock that Teeth Dreams most closely resembles; right down to Kubler’s adoption of the riff from “The Spirit of Radio” in “Wait a While.” That in and of itself isn’t a bad thing; adding a second guitarist gives them a full-bodied attack appropriate for the genre, and a good amount of these ten songs do hit the good-timey mullets and denim sweet spot of AOR from the late ’70s and early ’80s, “Wait a While” and “Runner’s High” especially. Plus, the extra guitarist allows them to go full-on Crazy Horse sludge on the “Cortez the Killer”-style closer “Oaks.” And Finn’s lyrics, when you can make them out, remain rife with the eagle eyed, slice of life details he made his name on, whether spinning a tale about the rope’s end junkie couple on “Oaks,” or the “salted rims and frosted mugs” in the evening of a club hopping dilettante on “Spinners.”
Still, Teeth Dreams is unquestionably the worst sounding album the Hold Steady have released, and difficult to view objectively as a result. Song for song it’s a far more confident effort than Heaven is Whenever, and I guess that’s enough? But it’s rather frustrating to think what the result might have been were they not so content to work with a producer intent on making them sound like a bowl of porridge looks. And the Raskulinecz reign of terror doesn’t appear to be ending any time soon; he’s already been tapped to work on the next Mastodon record, clearly for the sole purpose of making their rhythm section sound even more muffled than Brendan O’Brien already did on Crack the Skye (2009). Won’t somebody think of the children!?