We stay in the USA for this week’s new albums. Literate bar-rockers The Hold Steady still have new ideas on their eighth studio album. Tennessee indie artist Julien Baker is back with a third album of introspection, while Paramore’s Hayley Wiliams makes a true solo album, playing everything on Flowers for Vases / Descansos.
The Hold Steady
Open Door Policy
Open Door Policy was largely recorded in 2019, around the time that The Hold Steady’s previous record Thrashing Thru The Passion was released. The group premiered new songs in London in early March 2020, but their tour was curtailed by coronavirus. It builds on their previous record, which was the first to feature a six-piece lineup with both keyboardist Franz Nicolay and guitarist Steve Selvidge. Impressively they’re expanding their sound on their eighth album. The band’s always immediately identifiable with its classic rock flavour and Craig Finn’s distinctive half-spoken vocals, but there are new elements here – in particular closer ‘Hanover Camera’ takes a smooth groove straight from 1970s Steely Dan.
The most memorable song, however, is ‘Unpleasant Breakfast’. It packs a lot of ideas into less than five minutes, like a mini rock-opera. There’s a great little Tom Petty reference (“Says she’s crazy about horses still”) and a touch of Jim Steinman in the piano riffs that bring the song to its conclusion. While Finn’s written about female characters before, ‘Me & Magdalena’ is unusual for writing in first person perspective about a female. ‘The Feelers’ is a strong opener, using Finn’s vocals to gently slide into the song – “She had the aura of an angel/But she had a couple problems/I guess the big one is she’s someone else’s wife” is one of Finn’s best lines.
It lacks the big choruses of The Hold Steady’s peak era, but Open Door Policy is an impressive eighth album – the band incorporating new ideas into their music while staying true to what made them effective.
Before Julien Baker became an indie success with the barebone demos of 2015’s Sprained Ankle, she always played in bands. After returning to college to finish her literature and secondary teaching degree, she’s back with her third album. Little Oblivions features rock arrangements, differing from the acoustic guitar and piano textures of Baker’s first two records, but there’s no band. Baker covers most of the instruments herself, playing guitar, drums, and bass, as well as producing. Her Boygenius friends, Phoebe Bridgers and Lucy Dacus, contribute backing vocals on ‘Favor’.
The rock textures differentiate Little Oblivions from Baker’s previous work, but it does suffer from Baker’s biggest weakness; it’s easy for all her songs to blend into one, as she often uses similar melodic ideas. But Baker’s always engrossing regardless, with her soul-baring lyrics and compelling vocals. She’s great on rockers like ‘Ringside’, noting “Nobody deserves a second chance/But honey, I keep getting them”. There’s mellower material too – ‘Crying Wolf’ is a pretty ballad that could have easily come from an earlier Baker record.
Baker’s confessional music works well in a rock context, but it would be great to hear some more diversity in melodic ideas next time.
Flowers for Vases / Descansos
I wasn’t expecting another record from Hayley Williams in 2021. The Paramore frontwoman released her first solo album, Petals for Armor, in 2020, and she’s back less than a year later with her second. This time it’s a true solo album, with Williams recording the album in her home studio and handling all the instrumentation herself. Williams announced the low-key album with a fascinatingly low-key marketing campaign where she personally mailed fans severed doll limbs, a reference to the song ‘My Limb’. She leaked the first single by hand-delivering it to a fan on CD and instructing them to upload it.
The sound palette of Flowers for Vases / Descansos is minimal – Williams accompanying herself on acoustic guitar, piano, and drums. The minimalist instrumentation puts the spotlight on Williams’ songwriting to hit, and she largely succeeds. She’s still dissecting her 2017 divorce, and the record is often contemplative and melancholy – the record opens with the terrific line “First thing to go was the sound of his voice”. There’s pretty material like the lovely piano of ‘KYRH’ (Keep You Right Here), and Williams supplies a full-band arrangement for the rock-oriented closer ‘Just A Lover’.
I’m not sure that I’ll return to this minimalist album often, but Williams is a strong enough writer and vocalist to make it a compelling listen.