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Hold Steady ramps up the drama on 'Teeth Dreams'

Greg Kot

5:03 PM EDT, March 21, 2014

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'Teeth Dreams'

The Hold Steady

3 stars (out of 4)

With a lackluster 2010 album, "Heaven is Whenever," behind them, the Hold Steady finally return with a retooled lineup that includes a new guitarist, Steve Selvidge, to complement mainstay Tad Kubler. The quintet flexes its newfound firepower from the get-go on its sixth album, "Teeth Dreams" (Razor & Tie).

"I Hope this Whole Thing Didn't Frighten You" crashes through the door like the old gang of misfits that the song's narrator used to run with. Craig Finn's sing-speak delivery suits the alarming narrative, a tale about friendship and how people's perception of what that entails shifts over time. As he comes to grips with what his old buddies have become, paranoia begins to percolate. "Jesus, this might be a mess," he mutters.

"Spinners" melds big-city guitars with the story of a young woman who navigates the night without losing herself in it. When the storm clears briefly, Finn pulls back to savor the way she tightropes between possibility and commitment.

The New York-via-Minneapolis quintet initially defined itself as a bar band that loved Thin Lizzy and the Clash, and found poetry in Midwestern earnestness. Things have taken a slicker turn over the last few albums, and "Teeth Dreams" sometimes labors under the weight of its own ambitions. "Oaks" slogs on for nearly nine minutes, including a seemingly endless guitar solo. "Almost Everything" and "The Ambassador" aim for a sparse, contemplative feel, though the songs lack the shake and shiver that characterizes the best Hold Steady songs.

Overall, hits outweigh the misses in what adds up as one of the band's darkest albums. Finn's at his caustic best in the self-deprecating "Big Cig" as he testifies over a growling bass breakdown about getting the run-around from a femme fatale. "On With the Business" sounds like trouble, a noir soundtrack that briefly flashes on lurid details – "blood on the carpet, mud on the mattress." Finn and the Hold Steady still know how to pack a movie's worth of anxiety and drama into four minutes.

greg@gregkot.com