Cheap Queen, King Princess’s debut album, played like one of those summer nights that last forever. In a series of seedy, Mellotron-heavy ballads, New York-born songwriter and producer Mikaela Strauss sang about shooting the shit with friends and exchanging sneaky glances with girls at crowded parties, each scene rendered with the careless, reflexive coolness. from an Eve Babitz story. It was a debut whose greatest confidence belied the fact that Strauss first rose to fame after their Patricia Highsmith reference debut single “1950” went viral in early 2018. Where so many musicians react hesitantly to virality—shifting quickly or denouncing their early work—Strauss delivered on her early promise with the grace and radiance of a star.
Like Cheap QueenStrauss’ second album hold on baby is urban and idiosyncratic, the work of an astute musician who comes into his own as a producer and stylist. She sounds the same Lake like herself: More flexible as a singer, sharper as a lyricist, more confident in her own strength to bridge the gap between disparate styles. if Cheap Queen‘s palette was ambiguously vintage – all old-school soul flourishes, revamped to fit easily somewhere between Troye Sivan and Lorde –hold on baby firmly positions Strauss as someone coming of age in the 2010s, when indie rock reached its mainstream peak.
Strauss has teamed up with a string of killers of mainstream indie heavy hitters, including Aaron and Bryce Dessner, Ethan Gruska, Shawn Everett and Mark Ronson, drawing influences liberally but never mindlessly: A Strokes-y guitar line runs through “Cursed,” while ” Crowbar” nods to Sufjan Stevens’ fluttering piano ballads; the piano at the beginning of “Dotted Lines” recalls the work of Rostam Batmanglij and Ariel Rechtshaid on Vampire Weekend’s Modern Vampires of the Cityand “Sex Shop” feels like a piece with St. Vincent’s estranged sexuality Strange grace. These references never feel floaty or obvious, largely because Strauss’ own sense of mood – their penchant for warm tones and spatial atmospheres that can become cold and claustrophobic in a second – always takes precedence. She runs the affair with a cool hand and a keen sense of when to retire — the understated elegance of someone who spends most of his life hanging out in studios.
hold on baby is a more solemn record than its predecessor. The energetic frisson that Strauss found on Cheap Queen was supplanted by fear and despondency. hold on baby is not a break-up album; instead, Strauss finds inspiration in the tensions that arise in a long-term relationship. On “Hold On Baby Interlude” they describe themselves as “a chipped tooth with the nerve exposed”, and that sickening tension permeates the album. The plush, weightless love song “Winter Is Hopeful” blocks its sweet words (“I’m always thinking, thinking, thinking of you”) with ribbons of acid: “But you never believe it.” Strauss practically whispers the lyrics; it feels like she’s practicing lines from across the room instead of actually tackling the object of her desire. “Change the Locks,” one of the few tracks produced with Aaron Dessner, explodes from pleading minimalism to thumping, clenched arena rock, even though one of the main tensions is impossibly small: “Losing Your Mind Over Something I Wore / Just Because It yours.”