There's no question that Chicago's Baby Teeth draw heavily and heartily from the classic rock and power pop of the 1970s. It can be trickier to say whether the results constitute jokey pastiche or sincere homage, but that confusion seems entirely appropriate -- and the distinction almost irrelevant -- when you consider that the '70s were an era when playfulness and emotional earnestness coexisted in rock music far more easily than they typically do today. (Take, for instance, the work of the Todd Rundgren, Electric Light Orchestra, and Meat Loaf with Jim Steinman, all of whose influence is readily evident here.) So, when "Big Schools" opens the album with an anthemic rock flourish and a picturesque, writerly evocation of Classic American Collegiate Romance (frat party, freshman year, "...your friend's boyfriend was working the door..."), it feels somehow insincere; a pat, too-perfect mimicry of Springsteen's nostalgia-fueled narratives (or maybe more precisely the second-degree nostalgia of the Hold Steady -- in the songwriting blog project which generated much of this album's material, front Tooth Abraham Levitan acknowledged the song's debt to their "Stuck Between Stations.") But as its story arc develops into a sort of stock mini-epic, with the characters graduating to the dissatisfactions of suburban parenthood, the song grows genuinely affecting, largely due to how fully it embraces the caricature, with all the right musical touches down to the cowbell and a Roy Bittan-esque piano break. Some of the other stylistic excursions here -- the blue-eyed R&B ballad "I Hope She Won't Let Me," the proggy, hard-rocking title track, and the bizarro heavy blooze of "Snake Eyes" -- aren't quite as convincing, in part because Levitan's usually quite serviceable and personable voice tends to sound a bit silly and even grating when he pushes it too hard. But as long as he sticks with more straightforward upbeat pop/rock, which is most of the time, he's got the hooks and the witty charm to make it work -- both for goofs like the high school stalker ode "Shrine" ("every day for lunch I eat what you eat/for science fair I studied the way you sleep") and more sincere numbers like the closing piano lament "It's Hard to Find a Friend" -- and most of the album is a pure, understated joy, striking just the right balance of braininess, frivolity, and heart.
Hustle Beach Review
by K. Ross Hoffman