THE HOLD STEADY || Open Door Policy
Craig Finn and mates break little new ground on their eighth studio album, which is reason for loyal, longtime friends to rejoice. Instead, they explore old, familiar terrains, the kinds that propelled the band into indie-darling status a few years into the millennium, most notably their top-shelf bar-band vibe and Finn's effusive way with drenching his lyrics in vibrant colors and evocative details.
“Open Door Policy” is the successor to 2019's dynamic “Thrashing Through the Passion” – no easy act to follow. Though it lacks its predecessor's sustained thrill and verve, “Door' at least holds serve and again gives fans reason to believe that the lean and somewhat incidental years/albums spent without essential keyboardist Franz Nicolay (2010-16) were an anomaly. His bold, creative presence is felt again here.
In these first-person perspectives, Finn spins his observations into cautionary tales and parables, like in “Me and Magdalena,” a gut-wrenching story of infatuation, dysfunctional romance and loss; and “Family Farm,” a beseechment to a friend who is too willing to compromise in matters of love.
Among the other high points: “Unpleasant Breakfast,” in which the band's volcanic eruptions threaten to overwhelm Finn's gothic narrative, a story rife with memorable and penetrating lines and images: “All your stuff in the storage shed / Twisted sheets on the trundle bed / And the anti-psychosis meds / Made you feel all marooned.” Or this line, which uses vomit as a metaphor for bad habits and chronic denial: “You just can't keep throwing up and then cover it with sawdust / And expect us not to notice and pretend it didn't happen.”
It's all at once refreshing and familiar. So those not expecting the band to ignite new earthquakes or re-split the atom will find plenty to like here. The arrangements are meaty, beefy and bouncy—feats of combined precision and strength. And Finn is back at his vivid-verbiage best, preaching and storytelling in poems and prose that recall Springsteen at his earliest and most lyrically ambitious.
So let's hear an “amen” and a “hallelujah”: Once again, the Hold Steady lives up to its name and reputation.
JULIEN BAKER || Little Oblivions
Baker's heart and soul feel wise and wizened well beyond her years, which hit a mere 25 in September 2020. On her third album (since 2015) she delivers more of the same goods that have drawn attention from fans of all ages: candid and provocative confessionals that plumb and illuminate her chronic dysfunction and despair.
She sets these candid and honest dispatches to music that typically belies their dark content. So you may get swept away in the bounce and melody to “Heatwave” without noticing the gravity of its sentiments: “I was on a long spiral down / Before I make it to the ground / I'll wrap Orion's belt around my neck / And kick the chair out.”
Or lines like these from “Hardline”: “Would you hit me this hard if I were a boy?”; and “I can see where this is going / But I can't find the brake.” Or this from “Ringside”: “Beat myself until I'm bloody / I'll give you a ringside seat.”
As a lyricist, Baker doesn't merely regurgitate thoughts and images that spring to mind as she taps into the pain that provokes and inspires her. Rather, her lyrics are crafted and composed thoughtfully into personal narratives – poems, really -- with universal themes.
Those of us from another generation may think of artists like Tori Amos as elder inspirations, and rightfully so. But more to the point: Like Billie Eilish, Mackenzie Scott and others, Baker is among an emerging group of female artists elevating the art and craft of songwriting by applying their own unique traits and fresh wisdom.
LORETTA LYNN || Still Woman Enough
Lynn's 50th studio album is a career-spanning selfie from a woman on the cusp of 90. If you are a completist and one who can't help but give this woman all the support and appreciation she deserves, by all means, indulge in this retrospective Post-It love note from her to you.
Among the 13 tracks are reconfigurations of some of her most beloved songs: a recitation of “Coal Miner's Daughter” that feels like a deathbed incantation; a rousing remake of “One's On the Way,” featuring Margo Price, one of several guest vocalists; and grittier – vocally, at least – renditions o f classics like “Honky Tonk Girl,” “I Wanna Be Free,” “You Ain't Woman Enough” and “Where No One Stands Alone.”
The two originals are versions of the title track that open and close the album: one featuring Reba McEntire and Carrie Underwood, the other with Tanya Tucker. The song is a hot gust of bravado and a declaration of strength and defiance, roiling with lines like “I'm strong but I'm tender / Wise but I'm tough” and “They call me hillbilly / But I got the last laugh / Standing her today / Proving in every way / I'm still woman enough.”
No one with any sense has ever doubted her wisdom or toughness, only her stamina to sustain the feminist battle she's been waging for decades. This record ought to put those doubts to rest indefinitely.