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The Hold Steady gets back to gritty narratives


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The Hold Steady comes storming out of the gates like Thin Lizzy on its new album, "Teeth Dreams," with Craig Finn relaying a tale of coming back for Christmas and mixing it up some unsavory old friends.

"There was a side of this city I didn't want you to see," he sings, doing his best Phil Lynott. "There's just these guys that I know, we go back pretty deep."

The message from the top is that after a four-year gap in records, the boys are back in Hold Steady mode.

The Hold Steady
Where: Mr. Smalls, Millvale.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesday.
Tickets: $18; www.mrsmalls.com.

After the fifth album, "Heaven Is Whenever," the Brooklyn band split off in different directions, with frontman Finn making a solo album, "Clear Heart Full Eyes," that allowed him to lower the volume and compress the songwriting.

"With The Hold Steady I like it to be more cinematic," he says in a phone interview. "It's bigger music, louder music, and it has higher highs, lower lows. So I kind of want to tell more stories that are a little more dramatic. I think The Hold Steady is a good place to tell stories that I think of but maybe didn't happen exactly to me, whereas the solo stuff can be more confessional, certainly more vulnerable and a little more personal. The solo record I felt dealt with things that were a little more mundane where The Hold Steady is more dramatic like where people are getting shot or falling off the roof or something."

Mr. Finn is well known for constructing early Springsteen-style narratives about wrecked party people getting their lives or their dreams crushed. Sometimes he's merely a narrator, other times he's in the thick of it. Either way, it takes some time to collect those stories.

"I think a lot of it comes from motion or travel," he says. "I like walking around, especially on tour, going to strange places. I might walk into a residential neighborhood and say, like, 'What happened in that house? What goes on there?' I usually get a rough idea of the story and play around with it. Some come quickly and some don't come at all. It happens different for each one."

Reassembling the band after hiatus was a "pretty seamless," he says.

"We've been around 10 years. So it feels like once we get the amps plugged in, once we get everything set up, usually we start with some old stuff and just play a few songs and it's like off to the races. I think we all know each other pretty well. So it's a pretty quick re-entry."

The sound that The Hold Steady established in the mid-'00s featured keyboardist Franz Nicolay. When he departed in 2010 he was replaced on the road by Dan Neustadt. Although there are keyboards to be found on "Teeth Dreams," the current touring lineup goes with a two-guitar attack with Tad Kubler and Steve Selvidge, who joined in 2011.

"It's a pretty guitar-centric record," the singer says. "Steve, our second guitar player, who's from Memphis, joined on the touring for the last record, but this is the first record we wrote and recorded with him. It really highlights the interplay between the two."

Having been at this now for a decade, The Hold Steady has already gone through the honeymoon period with rock press and come out the other side.

"That's just the cycle of it, that's just the life of it," he says. "And I think especially nowadays with the Internet, we're so focused on new stuff, and we are certainly not a new band. We were able to ride that critical acclaim and build a fan base and now we have a fan base that's really stuck with us, and that's been the important thing for us."

This tour finds the band highlighting one special fan, "Jersey Mike," who prompted a PledgeMusic campaign to support his family.

"We had a fan that was very helpful to us and was almost like the unofficial leader of the fan club -- it's called the Unified Scene -- and he passed away unexpectedly in 2012 and I feel like rock 'n' roll's response to any tragedy is some hastily assembled benefit concert that's really unorganized and not super effective. So, rather than do that, we thought let's figure out something we can do that's special. We got the idea of doing this covers EP and relaunching the Unified Scene as more of an official fan club. So if you join it you get the covers EP and some add-on stuff, and we each brought in our own songs. So it's a five-song EP with covers that each of us chose.

The songs are still a surprise, but it's got some punk rock, some classic rock, some indie rock, and the response to it has been really amazing. We hit our goal within 24 hours and it's all going to a great cause. It allows us to interface directly with our fans."


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