The Hold Steady: Open Door Policy (Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers) - review | Under The Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
Monday, September 20th, 2021  

The Hold Steady

Open Door Policy

Positive Jams/Thirty Tigers

Mar 08, 2021 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


After seven albums and almost two decades as a band, The Hold Steady could easily rest on their laurels, cashing in on their well-earned reputation as America’s Best Bar Band. But with the reintroduction of keyboardist Franz Nicolay into the band and a solid return effort in 2019’s Thrashing Thru The Passion, the band seemed primed for an unexpected second wind. Open Door Policy continues in that vein, welcoming back fans with newfound instrumental touches to accompany Craig Finn’s poetic paeans to shady characters and bad decisions.

Of course, the band doesn’t go too far afield of their classic sound, still carrying the flag for boozy bar band choruses, verbose Springsteen-esque narratives, and some blistering guitar theatrics. While in general, the band is a little more restrained than on Boys and Girls in America or Separation Sunday, the explosive choruses of “Lanyards,” “Spices,” or “Family Farm” hit suitable highs and bring much the same elements to the fore. These tracks find The Hold Steady in a bit of a holding pattern, faithfully resurrecting the rousing bar rock spirit of the early 2000s with the added weight of a decade and a half of experience.

As usual, Finn is very much a “love him or hate him” frontman, but few can deny how perfectly his slurred talk-singing fits the band’s back-alley setting. Similarly, the band treads some of their favorite topics on Open Door Policy—drugs, Catholicism, ill-fated romance, America. All the quintessential makings of heartland rock with The Hold Steady’s signature hard-scrabble grit. Finn’s lyrics, however, occasionally take a more impressionistic bent on Open Door Policy and largely move away from the band’s already established canon of characters.

The opener “Feelers” acts as a grand introduction, following the narrator as he meets the new heir to a large fortune, before shifting to stories of illicit sexual liaisons and imagery of “drifters with angel wings” and “St. Francis with the pigeons on his shoulder.” Elsewhere, “Lanyards” meditates on the idea of status and access as the narrator heads from his midwest town to LA to try and make it big. Finn also dives into more specific character studies, such as the doomed love epic of “Me and Magdelena” or the traveling software salesman in search of a dealer in “Heavy Covenant.”

Even more important than Finn’s characters, though, is their constant search for something better. The band’s down on their luck figures searching for a better life or simply another fix ring even more true in the age of COVID when the themes of economic inequality, deteriorating quality of life, and isolation all hit deeply. Even more so given Finn’s talent for a devastating turn of phrase, such as his musings on “Me and Magdalena”“There’s something in the silence that hurts a bit to hear.”

The real steps forward for the band lie in some newfound instrumental approaches. Whereas the band often has relied on fiery riffs to carry their material, Open Door Policy feels like a more collaborative record, perhaps owing to Nicolay’s renewed presence in the band. Nicolay is certainly the standout on “Riptown,” where the honkey piano-driven groove carries the song forward, as well as on the more ornate closer, “Hanover Camera,” where the band consciously avoids the wild soloing that has become one of their trademarks. Similarly, Nicolay was a significant presence in writing “Heavy Covenant,” whose introductory pulsing synth line immediately gives it a unique character on the record. “Unpleasant Breakfast” is the record’s clear high point as far as changing up The Hold Steady’s formula. A shuffling drum machine beat and syncopated funk guitar push the band’s sound forwards, while the band incorporates familiar callbacks to their bar band style with a rollicking piano instrumental break.

Open Door Policy lives up to its name, inviting listeners back into the world of The Hold Steady with open arms. It likely won’t ruffle any feathers, deftly walking the line between the band’s classic style and new adventures. The band neither seems content to sit back and play the hits nor to break the formula too much. Perhaps that ambivalence holds Open Door Policy from ranking among their best, but The Hold Steady clearly have more to say and do in their second act, and the record points to how rewarding the possibilities can be. (www.theholdsteady.net)

Author rating: 6.5/10

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Average reader rating: 7/10



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