Credit: John Shearer/Getty
Album Roundup by InRO Staff Featured Music

Album Roundup — February 2021 | Part 2: Willie Nelson, Drakeo the Ruler, The Hold Steady

March 15, 2021

Willie Nelson

With That’s Life, Willie Nelson finds himself two albums deep into a cycle of Frank Sinatra cover songs. Assuming he’s following the model set out by his old pal Bob Dylan, we might expect a triple-LP follow-up within a matter of months… or is that a glib comparison? After all, Nelson has been an enthusiastic champion of the Great American Songbook — sometimes at real risk to his own (commercial) standing in the outlaw country movement — at least as far back as 1978, and he’s been a singer of impeccable phrasing for even longer. More to the point, his jaunts through Sinatra’s canon have been markedly different in feel from Dylan’s: Rather than haunted deconstructions, Willie’s 2018 album My Way offered smooth-talking charm and conversational updates on some of the Chairman’s old warhorses. That’s Life offers more of the same — or, perhaps, a bit less. On the surface, it scans very much like a sequel; Willie still indulges in Songbook staples that are mostly quite familiar, still indulges in the occasional swell of brass and strings too, but mostly relies on the nimble swing of his touring band. And swing is the operative word here: Even more than My Way, That’s Life hones in on a version of Sinatra at his most garrulous and carefree.

The biggest issue with that approach here is that, at age 87, Willie is really starting to exhibit some significant vocal deterioration. He can still summon plenty of warmth and charisma (listen to him turn the melodrama of “Cottage for Sale” into something achingly plainspoken), but just as often, his craggy voice sounds at odds with the material’s intended effervescence. Even if you chalk that up as part of the album’s charm — a reasonable enough take — it doesn’t change the sense that the album is a little perfunctory, whereas its predecessor often felt genuinely galvanizing. Willie and his band hit all their marks here, right down to a duet with Diana Krall and a brassy, floor-show take on “You Make Me Feel So Young.” Not much, however, is done to contextualize or interrogate these songs — beyond the demonstration of Nelson’s obvious affection for them. That’s Life is a sufficient, perfectly pleasant companion — but also one of the least essential Willie Nelson albums of the past decade.

Writer: Josh Hurst   Section: Rooted & Restless

Credit: Berick Visuals

Drakeo the Ruler

Drakeo the Ruler has already packed a lot of music into a still burgeoning career, which is all the more impressive when you consider the fact that the L.A. rapper has been hounded and harassed by law enforcement since his earliest days of visibility. Drakeo dropped his first mixtape in 2015, and in the time since he’s already served two stints in prison. But he seemingly hasn’t let that let incarceration impede his output at all, still managing to release a total of nine projects over the course of six years — a count which, notably, includes last year’s Thank You for Using GTL, for which Drakeo recorded his verses from prison, over the phone. Not even the threat of multiple felony convictions could do much to slow Drakeo’s momentum — so it comes as no real surprise that he’s on to his third album since being freed last November (though 2020’s Because Y’all Asked was devoted to rerecordings of the GTL tracks). He’s making up for lost time, and then some.

The Truth Hurts is Drakeo’s most hyped release yet; it’s propelled by his dramatic, starmaking 2020, as well as a much-advertised Drake feature (his biggest cosign to date). Said Drake feature ends up being a wash, tellingly tacked-on at the close along with a radio edit (just in case). But The Truth Hurts is, otherwise, a substantial effort that confirms Drakeo as one of contemporary rap’s most ferocious presences and deftest stylists. Utilizing a hushed, monotone flow and a static cadence that clash dramatically with the spare melodies he often chooses to rap over, Drakeo’s new project is jarring and serrated, an impression compounded by the rapper’s habit of bailing on rhyme schemes, and as well by lyrical content that swings between bleak descriptions of violence and phonetically pleasing assemblages of slang and cultural allusion (“Pull up in the Double R, I’m Dawn Toliver/It’s a dirty lemonade in a Prada bag”). 

The Truth Hurts vacillates in tone; it can be celebratory and even silly, but never without hinting at something more ominous, even nihilistic, underneath. Drakeo’s formidable persona comes with a meanness that, while not unfamiliar or new to the genre, feels out of step with the current pop music landscape — his threats are a bit more vivid and nasty than what we hear these days, and his put-downs are harsher too. Inevitably there are moments when this all becomes entwined with barely concealed misogyny and homophobia; Drakeo’s anger projects out in unpleasant directions that will ostracize him from some. It’s frustrating, to be sure, that this energy exists within the project, since so many other moments resonate with both great ingenuity and spirit. Of course, the dichotomy is also the point; how you contend with it is another matter. 

Writer: M.G. Mailloux   Section: What Would Meek Do?

The Hold Steady

After ending an otherwise shaky 2010s run on a solid return to form with Thrashing Through the Passion, The Hold Steady is back with Open Door Policy, a raucous, ambling rock album in the style of, well, themselves. The swagger of Craig Finn’s signature half-sung, half-spoken vocals is back, present alongside all of the classic THS sounds, and it’s in these comfortable corners that the group finds their greatest successes on the record. But, as these go, that familiarity also works to their detriment, retreading ground they’ve covered before.

Perhaps one explanation for this rehash is that no one loves The Hold Steady quite like The Hold Steady loves The Hold Steady, and Open Door Policy is no exception to this career-long rule. The album is rife with references to their other songs, starting with the first lines of opening track “The Feelers”: “It was an early morning meet-up at the mansion on the mountain / the maestro still had glitter on his face” is likely a point towards Thrashing Through the Passion’s “Star 18,” referencing a similar mansion meeting. On the same track, there’s a typical reference to St. Francis, one in a series of patron saint references that occurs throughout their whole catalog. This penchant for knowing nods and saintly riffs is also present in the introductory lines on “Family Farm,” with Finn singing,  “St. Catherine’s was a nightmare, you know they took away my headphones.”  Elsewhere, on  “Unpleasant Breakfast,” there are references to a horse girl, perhaps the very same who was sung about on tracks like “Chips Ahoy!” and “The Weekenders.” These layers of self-reference aren’t inherently ill-advised, but in accumulating, they do begin to feel a bit tacky here, something a band known for their pub rock influences should already be trying to avoid. That said, such references will primarily be noticed by (and presumably intended for) long-time listeners of the band, a demographic likely to be delighted to be in the know. For the unfamiliar, at worst these lyrics might scan as nonsensical, hardly a rock sin.  More frustrating is that even when the lyrical content isn’t relying on reference, it tends towards eye-roll cliché, notable particularly on “Riptown” — “The kid’s a computer that’s been programmed to dream” comes to mind as a most egregious example.

All of that aside, it’s important (and fair) to note that the band still sounds excellent.  They’re all obviously talented musicians, riding a groove that artists who have been performing together for this many years often have a hard time maintaining. Despite the off-putting lyrical shenanigans, then, they manage to pull off a sincerity that transcends much of the indie rock from the era they emerged from, and now.  The result of these varyingly successful parts is a patently decent album, just so long as you’re able to turn off your brain just enough to ignore some of the rote wordplay that accompanies the still capable rock sonics.

Writer: Andrew Bosma   Section: Pop Rocks

Credit: Vasso Vu

Danny L Harle

Danny L Harle makes music for an alternative universe, one where “Blue (Da Ba Dee)” has retained its status as the number one song in the world for the 22nd year in a row, where Cascada is as critically lauded and respected as Björk, and where Darude’s “Sandstorm” has been inducted into the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry. In this otherworld, every track off of his debut album, the long-awaited Harlecore, would be a Top 10 Billboard hit single blasted from every abandoned warehouse and speaker system in the country. Sadly, there exists no parallel world that would accommodate such particulars; Harle’s brand of early-2000s genre-mashing (name your pick: Europop, happy hardcore, EDM, rave, etc.) isn’t sanitized enough for public consumption, even if he has been credited on some of the more forwarding-thinking pop musicians’ production of our time. His approach to songwriting can best be exemplified by his “Huge Danny” remix of Ed Sheeran and Khalid’s boring “Beautiful People”: he amplifies the base level of pathos found in mainstream pop, pushes it past the point of irony, and locates a newfound sincerity that most mainstream artists are afraid to dabble in. In theoretical essence, Harle celebrates the pure euphoric joy music can provide, the unabashed ecstasy found in libidinal release.

Harlecore’s constructed around these fundamental tenets, and succeeds in spades — and even goes as far as to ambitiously humanize its eclectic sonic palette through a Split-style usage of multiple personas, all of whom constitute the album’s admittedly goofy cover art. You have DJ Danny, which is Harle working in his own established style of Dance Dance Revolution-friendly material like the soulful opener “Where Are You Now.” There’s MC Boing, a Crazy Frog-esque figure (and long-time collaborative effort with Lil Data) whose energetic, annoying presence is reduced to brief interludes like the manic “Car Song,” which finds Lil Data screaming “We are driving in a car” in tandem with a car’s honking horn. Meanwhile, DJ Ocean utilizes Caroline Polachek’s ethereal vocal abilities to their fullest on the project’s most nacreous and texturally-detailed tracks, and DJ Mahem (a collab with Hudson Mohawk) lives up to its namesake with aggressive rave anthems that nearly buckle from the weight of their whopping basslines. While each of these alter egos represents something of a stylistic shift for Harle as they manifest, his music’s consistent energy maintains a steady progression, one undeterred by these frequent switch-ups and detours; that he’s able to retain firm authorship over a wide variety of tonalities and rhythms is impressive in its own right, but even more so by the fact that each of these disparate elements coheres into something familiar, yet also idiosyncratic. On the cinematic works of Frank Tashlin, Jean-Luc Godard once praised the former animator because he hadn’t simply replicated what had come before, but had improved on a formula by establishing his own lexicon, stating: “Tashlin, in other words, has not renewed but created. And henceforth, when you talk about a comedy, don’t say ‘It’s Chaplinesque’; say, loud and clear, ‘It’s Tashlinesque.’” In that sense, when talking about modern dance music, Danny has accomplished the same feat; so say it loud and clear people: “It’s Harlecore.”

Writer: Paul Attard   Section: Obscure Object

Sun Kil Moon

There’s a lesson to be learned from the 2014 Sun Kil Moon album Benji, albeit not one that has anything to do with mortality, fate, or the various other mysteries of life that project’s mastermind, Mark Kozelek, ruminates on over the course of the album’s 61 minutes. No, this lesson became apparent in the years following Benji, as Kozelek toured that record with an increasing chip on his shoulder, lashing out at fans, critics, and other musicians on stage and on record. A strange tension persisted in these few years, with festivals and blogs continuing to insist that Sun Kil Moon was a vital contemporary act, even as Kozelek’s behavior became more obviously regressive and sexist. It seemed as if the singer-songwriter paid music tastemakers back for their briefly successful (and at least a little opportunistic) attempt at resuscitating his career with only contempt and spite. Though this likely ascribes too much intent on Kozelek’s part: In reality, those who had rushed to prop him up likely did so knowing what he was about.

Over here, in 2021, Kozelek and Sun Kil Moon have been removed from cultural conversation, and coverage of his music absent from mainstream outlets. This happened at some point in the midst of a slew of increasingly insular, lengthy diary/spoken-word albums that completely killed his post-Benji momentum even before the sexual misconduct allegations that emerged last August. Kozelek subsequently put off releasing new music for most of 2020, but eventually (maybe inevitably) he returned — and put out 2 albums in quick succession via his own Caldo Verde Records label. This second and most recent release, Lunch in the Park, has all the turmoil and ugliness you’d expect, but presented in the form of placid reflection and musing. Once again favoring amelodic, talk-sing vocal stylings and un-poeticized, stream-of-conscious lyrics, Kozelek seems to at least want to address the heaviest scandals of the past couple years, but instead ends up taking aim at just about everything else. A baldly reactionary album, Lunch in the Park finds Kozelek sneering at liberals who want to tear down confederate statues (right after they cashed stimulus checks signed by Trump, he suspects) and bemoaning the rallying cry of “Black Lives Matter,” insisting that he’s well aware as a fan of boxing and blues music (he then proceeds to list famous black people for 2 minutes). Koz’ gets hung up on that stuff for a while, eventually reading off statistics about “black on black” crime, in between shouting out movie quotes pulled from AFI’s top 100 and crooning about how much he loves his wife who he cheated on a lot. Some of this is done in an odd, rhythmic cadence that could almost be described as rapping; indeed, the production here is less guitar-driven and more electronic-ambient, in a way that suggests a bizarre hip-hop influence of dubious sincerity. This is a pathetic album, badly mixed; Kozelek has clearly come to overvalue spontaneity while only narrowing his perspective.

Writer: M.G. Mailloux  Section: Ledger Line

Credit: Shelby Duncan

A.J. Croce

Though barely perceptible in the music itself, A.J. Croce’s By Request arrives with an undercurrent of tragedy. Following the sudden death of his wife in 2018, Croce wasn’t quite ready to face the pressure of writing all-new material; instead, he sought solace in some of his favorite songs through the years, tapping into a personal canon wide enough to accommodate Tom Waits, the Beach Boys, and Sam Cooke. He ended up reviving his own long-gestating idea of an all-covers album, using other people’s words and melodies as a catalyst for abandon and catharsis. The resulting album sounds at once familiar, bracing, and wonderfully ragged. It’s crucial to note that By Request was recorded before the pandemic, with Croce banging away at the piano in a tiny room, singing and playing in live takes with his regular touring band; adherence to social distancing guidelines would have made this kind of intimate, sweaty kineticism all but impossible.

By Request bears a passing resemblance to Paul McCartney’s Run Devil Run, another example of a rock and roller using a covers collection as an excuse to kick up a ruckus even while also processing the loss of a spouse. But McCartney hinted at his intentions with that record through a number of songs about loneliness and isolation. Croce does occasionally tip his hand — he slows the album’s breakneck pace long enough to acknowledge that “Only Love Can Break Your Heart,” and ends it by protesting that there “Ain’t No Justice” — but the dominant mode of By Request is pure joy. The songs arrive in a blur of pounded keys, loose horn arrangements, and Croce’s signature howl. You wouldn’t necessarily classify any of these performances as reinventions, but neither could you call them rote; they’re just too loud, heartfelt, and visceral for that, especially when Croce and his bandmates lean into limber funk, which they do most convincingly on Allen Toussaint’s “Brickyard Blues” and Billy Preston’s “Nothing from Nothing.” There’s also a barnstorming version of Randy Newman’s “Have You Seen My Baby,” a fuzz-drenched reading of the Faces’ “Stay with Me,” and — providing another brief respite from the upbeat — a woozy performance of Waits’s “San Diego Serenade.” There’s never a dull moment here, and it all adds up to something more rarified than your typical covers collection: By Request is a thrilling little jukebox record that just happens to be born of tragedy, which means it has a double purpose: as testament to music’s power to sustain — and to redeem.

Writer: Josh Hurst   Section: Rooted & Restless