Annie Hayden used to be in a band called Spent. They made quiet, jangly indie-pop for Merge Records from 1995 through 1997 then broke up in 1998 in unhappy acceptance of their own commercial inviability. A small tragedy because they were among the finest bands in their particular little genre, forming a sort of stylistic bridge between label mates the Magnetic Fields and Superchunk. Now Annie Hayden is solo, which begs the question asked of all those going it alone: Can she carry an entire album herself? Well, her first solo album, The Rub, is more consistent, more coherent, and just as good as any of her Spent records. Apparently she can.
In some ways Hayden's style has changed very little over the years. The breezy pop of Spent's 1997 "Good Luck Line" segues neatly into the breezy pop of "Start a Little Late"; "Stumble Up the Stairs", another Hayden composition from her Spent years, is echoed on the new record by "Sign of Your Love". But there are also innovations, or maybe just areas that couldn't be explored in a band with three songwriters. The "Land of Nod" sounds strangely like something off of Lou Reed's under-appreciated 1992 album, Passion and Warfare. "Wood and Glue" is a take on Belle and Sebastian that sounds fresher today than those durable Glaswegians of yesteryear.
As a female lead guitarist with all the Claptonisms that implies Hayden is something of a rarity. Listening to "Guitar Lesson", one of the four six-string-heavy instrumental tracks on The Rub, confirms that she doesn't actually need any lessons herself. Hayden's playing is more about melody than firepower, but she can dish the licks with the best of them. Maybe the point is she's teaching the lessons.
Guitar worship aside, Hayden has other strengths that are even less well appreciated. She's quite a songwriter for starters. Amazingly, her solo record has as much range as the Spent records, all of which were the work of three songwriters. She's also a great singer. True, her voice is a limited instrument -- she pretty much always sounds, for lack of a better term, girly -- but within her limitations she is capable of enormous creativity. Her ability to fashion melodies that are both pretty and rhythmically interesting calls to mind Rose Melberg of the Softies.
The commercial possibilities for Hayden's brand of pop music are not much brighter now than when Spent broke up; the clamoring for new Spent records has been low at best. But maybe *The Rub* marks the beginning of a more sustainable way for Annie Hayden to make music: small recording budget, an informal "band" of friends, and minimal touring. If low-key is how it has to be then fine. It's great to have Annie Hayden back.