The Hold Steady Bring Bigger Horns & Memorable Craig Finn Tales Via ‘Open Door Policy’ (ALBUM REVIEW)

Since 2014’s underwhelming Teeth Dreams, The Hold Steady has released just one record, 2019’s Thrashing Thru The Passion, a strong return to form for the Brooklyn-based sextet. However, during those years lead singer Craig Finn delivered three solo records (as well as a collection of outtakes, a comic book, and more) remaining busy with his somberly reflective/lightly experimental outings. On the band’s newest release, Open Door Policy, The Hold Steady moves to fully incorporate Finn’s more muted solo offerings, and the result is a disjointed transitional work.

Produced by Joshua Kaufman, there are very few big rock guitar riffs from Tad Kubler or Steve Selvidge, and while the restrained tone highlights the piano of Franz Nicolay (as well as an increased presence of horns) the driving low end of Bobby Drake on drums and Galen Polivka on bass are mostly confined to the sidelines.   

Finn’s novel-like lyrics and spoken word style dominate as tales of midlife crisis, shady drug deals, and failing relationships of all sorts populate each track. While these are standard scenarios in Finn’s and The Hold Steady’s world, there seems to be a sense of confinement and very little joy, meaning or excitement in visiting them in the way Finn sings. While things were always dangerous/bleak lyrically, on past records Finn would exclaim with all his heart, while turning a memorable phrase, making the darkness worth it; those moments are not found on Open Door Policy

“The Feelers” sets the tone for what’s to come with melancholy piano, weepy guitars, and spoken word strung-out lyrics, some parts hold promise but things never fully sync. The ominous “Spices” continues the downer sentiment feeling sluggish when it is time to explode with added horns while themes of restraint and loss continue in script-like fashion for “Lanyards” with its indie film cinematic score and dispassionate vocals.

The first single “Family Farm” is the best effort with plentiful guitars, a rising climax, and a good groove while “Heavy Covenant” delivers the most successful experimentation from the band with a buzzing tense feeling, augmented by keys and horns. That ‘searching for a new sound’ process gets overly clunky with programmed beats, disco-infused woo’s and disjointed lyrics sinking “Unpleasant Breakfast” while “Prior Procedure” also never fully coalesces as The Hold Steady seem to be reaching for midlife indie dad rock, designed in the vein of The National, which doesn’t play to their collective strengths.  

The album’s final three numbers point in a more positive direction as “Riptown” delivers with its handclaps and folksy bounce while “Me & Magdalena” stops/starts with a late 70’s rock purpose. “Hanover Camera” uses a smoky groove reminiscent of Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers “Breakdown” to wrap up the dour record as Open Door Policy finds Finn fusing his restrained solo work and The Hold Steady’s big rock sound, with the results falling somewhere in between as the somber gloom increases and the overall feeling deflates into hollow despair.

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