“The lighting made her look like she’d been captured, sitting up and staring into space, suddenly she turned to me and said “you see pretty harmless” the dosage was still open for debate”
One of the records I have leaned right into in 2021 is a pretty obvious flex for Mr SteveForTheDeaf. The Hold Steady have been a favourite band of mine since the heady rush of Almost Killed Me and Separation Sunday. I jump on everything they release with a fervour. Since the original run (AKM to Teeth Dreams, in my book) it’s safe to say their appeal has become more selective. They haven’t wavered in quality though. Modern THS know exactly who they are and what they’re doing. If they were a brand you might call them boutique at this stage.
The unorthodox method that most of the previous albums’ (Thrashing Thru The Passion) material got to the fans set them on a different path. A lush green path but not your standard Album/Tour/Album routine. This was all pre-pandemic and yet it put them in good stead for the end of the world we once knew.
After Tad’s illness and Franz returning to the fold, the band seemed to have the head space to work around Craig’s forays into solo work and tribute shows. The I Can’t Keep Saying Thank You Trilogy was a low-key wealth of lyrical stories, cool blues and lo-fi jams. We needed the rock back though. So The Hold Steady 2021 album Open Door Policy was going to have to get the band back together.
Album opener The Feelers is a trepidatious start. It sounds more like solo Finn than the band who brought you Most People Are DJ’s (or even Hurricane J). It’s good to see the band bending their own rules. A contemplative opener gives way to sleaze fest Spices. The third of three preview tracks pre-album release. In context of the playlist its all the more mighty.
Lanyards brings things much slower and lower really early on. Many band website preorders of the record came with a special promo lanyard referencing this track.
On the album sleeve graphics, each song is represented by an animal mentioned in the lyrics. Lanyards has its “Shark week”, Family Farm has its buzzing Hornets and the epic Unpleasant Breakfast has both Seagulls and Horses to choose from. THS and Horses have a whole lot of history so they go with the “Seagulls eating cigarettes” angle on that one. This track is one of the biggest departures for the band. On first listen I didn’t know what to do with it. It has a wonky Soft Parade like structure and a melody reminiscent of Soul Asylum’s String Of Pearls. There are some deliberately awkward rhyming couplets. The woohoo backing vocals are strange and experimental. The funky break down near the end is a brilliant pay off. Side one ends strong with the band in new territory. Making fascinating adult rock music.
Side two is driven and huge in sound. Heavy Covenant sets The Prior Procedure up perfectly for some classic rock shapes and Riptown is a rollicking tale of little collisions, hot glitchy robots and sketchy crucifixion tattoos, all dressed up in the red white and blue.
Me And Magdalena is sung from a female perspective on a scene where boys get inconsistent as they go from Kiss to Crust to Disco because their main driver has become (or was always) the drugs.
Hanover Camera is a different kind of album closer for this band. They always finish their albums big. Seldom do they finish slow. A cool Steely Dan meets Horrible Crowes type bass line boogie slowly slinks into view (for some reason it reminds me specifically of I Witnessed A Crime). The Horn Steady (yep that’s the name of THS’ horn section) swing with cool brass riffs in place of any major rock shapes. The tale is a rich scene report over tinkled ivory and brushed drums.
“I swear I saw a soldier selling single cigarettes, stationed somewhere halfway up the stairs”
All in all it looks like The Hold Steady have grown up, they were always a band of grown ups but now they’ve stopped singing about being kids. They’ve become an adult band that doesn’t even try and do punk anymore. Not in it’s most obvious form. In doing so they’ve aligned themselves with their audience once more. I’m not in many mosh pits theses days either.
“It starts, we sing and hold our hands over our hearts, it ends, when Heather puts the cap back in the lens”