Album Roundup by InRO Staff Music

Album Roundup — May 2021 | Part 3: Olivia Rodrigo, Black Midi, Weezer

Credit: Grand Spanier

Olivia Rodrigo

The cultural phenomenon that is Olivia Rodrigo, beyond whatever fanbase she amassed while a Disney channel star, can be best interpreted as follows: Most members of the elite media class have never really gotten over their high-school years and are therefore willing to bend over backwards to accommodate whatever piece of media will allow them to relive their supposed glory days. So while it’s mildly amusing to imagine “serious” grown men critic-types writing ledes such as “Olivia Rodrigo is the new bard of heartbreak…,” for dying print-media entities, it’s also a bit sad on a cultural level that there’s not a more critical eye directed at such rank fetishization. It’s rancid discourse such as this that radically alters the expectations one should set against SOUR before first diving in: If you want to buy into the hype and become a full-blown poptimist, then by all means praise the living hell out of this release. It’s okay, really; Robert Christgau, in a move that definitely wasn’t done to justify his relevancy, just gave this a rare A, a grade saved for other members of elite pop royalty such as Billie Eilish and Rihanna. By contemporary pop standards, you could easily do a lot worse. You could also do a lot better and listen to some more forward-thinking artists that inhabit this territory in nebulous degrees (the PC Music wing). But the glowing enthusiasm that’s been placed on what’s essentially a decent debut is a bit perplexing; maybe the critics have had their expectations crushed one too many times over the years and will just take anything at this point. Or, it could be that they’re more susceptible to a PR campaign than they might think. Or, they do know it and just don’t care. 

Anyway, of the 11 tracks here, about three of them really stick: opener “brutal” is equally flippant and abrasive, a perfect encapsulation of angsty distress in these modern times; “good 4 u” has trouble selling some of its wilder transitions, but it’s a decent enough Paramore cosplay, on the whole, warranting a few playthroughs on full volume; and “jealousy jealousy,” a shameless Arctic Monkey’s wannabe that leans into the venom hard enough to sell the act. There are two major duds — the never-ending, boring “traitor” and the miscalculated “hope ur ok” — and the rest is serviceably written and competently executed — often emotionally charged and volatile, but flat in terms of any noticeable thematic depth. Which is both something of the point and the big draw here, that 18-year-olds do feel like the end of the world is imminent because they don’t know how to parallel park. Contextualized in this way, SOUR improves drastically and becomes a right foot forward career-wise. In any other light, well, one begins to look a tad silly in an attempt to sell this as the next Big Thing in music. And why should such lofty expectations be placed on Rodrigo so early? Her debut is sparsely arranged — she was largely left to her own devices with producer Dan Nigro, with little major label interference, which itself is an impressive feat for a first release — and has a short shelf-life compared to what else she’s bound to have on the horizon. But perhaps that will deal with life outside of secondary school, and critics will have moved onto an even younger social darling by then.

Writer: Paul Attard   Section: Pop Rocks


Credit: Neal Haynes / The Times

Black Midi

Wunderkind British rock band Black Midi has returned with the hotly anticipated follow-up to their debut album, Schlagenheim, which was a singular vision of madness. Scrapping nearly all of those sounds, most significantly lead singer and guitarist Geordie Greep’s asinine, incomparable vocal performance, Cavalcade finds the four-piece-turned-three-piece (for this album only, inshallah) pushing even further sonically into the depths of hell and finding blistered, brutal beauty in the excavation, bringing along some saxophone, horn, and string players to round out the ensemble. Album intro “John L.” is as wild as anything on the record, with a cacophonous, technical soundscape of groovy bass, hurling saxophones, and screeching strings, with nothing taking particular precedence on the mix. Inspired by Henry Cow’s short-lived Rock in Opposition movement from the late ‘70s, “John L” is a track to throw fists too, but unfortunately also features hidden, cruel melodic lines that attach to the brain and shrilly repeat long after the song’s end. Lyrically, Greep is singing of a cult who has turned on their leader (pronounced John Fifty), and thankfully the track’s violent unisons and deafening silence illustrate this plotting and murder perfectly.

On “Slow,” bass player Cameron Picton takes over the vocals, which are turned down low, blending in with the repetitive bass, exuberant percussion, and arpeggiating guitar to create an ominous sludge of sound located somewhere near more frantic, jazzy, full-ensemble sections. The unusual mixing employed on the album — a nod to the postmodern literature that inspired the project — is meant to inform the audience that they’re listening to something recorded and is beautifully employed here. However, on other tracks, like the immensely technical, math-rockish “Chondromalacia Patella,” it merely distracts from the sheer amount of notes being played, and on “Hogwash and Balderdash” Greep is too loud, for once. It’s a small complaint, but a frustrating one when everything else is executed so perfectly that one just wishes they could hear it with more clarity. The mix doesn’t fail on the album’s more precious moments, like “Marlene Dietrich,” an acoustic track inspired by traditional pop, Popular Brazilian Music, and, of course, the titular actress. Greep’s freakish façade from the first album is fully lifted here, revealing a truly gorgeous crooning voice filled with imperfections and rich in emotion. On the album closer, “Ascending Forth,” a stunning 10-minute ballad only occasionally desecrated with harsh noise, he again employs this unpolished jewel to sing of Markus, a composer beset by writer’s block, repeating ascending fourth after ascending fourth. Finger-strummed acoustic guitar subsides as electricity, organ, and saxophone swell in the first half, with the acoustic and raucous trading off while Greep’s voice sweetens and intensifies. None of Markus’ hack work is present here: with Cavalcade, Black Midi prove themselves to be nothing less than some of rock’s most exciting inventors, synthesizing wholly new and unexpected sounds.

Writer: Tanner Stechnij   Section: Ledger Line


Weezer

It’s almost unfathomable to believe, but Weezer has continued to sustain themselves as a cultural entity for almost three decades since the release of their debut album — a period of time which has seen the group transition further and further away from the grungier elements of their starting sound and into a more commercial lane. Their progression into pop can be best understood by one of their most infamous tracks, “Can’t Stop Partying,” first released as an acoustic demo on frontman Rivers Cuomo’s Alone II: The Home Recordings of Rivers Cuomo, then later re-tooled as a hip-hop flavored rock crossover with a Lil Wayne feature (“Okay bitches, Weezer and it’s Weezy”). The new version of this song took Jermaine Dupri’s already dubious lyrics — “Just follow the smoke; they’re bringing bottles of the Goose/And all the girls in the corner getting loose” — and infused them with an even greater sense of Brechtian disconnect between intention and effect, essentially signaling that they were in on how ridiculous the entire thing was, while also playing into a certain cultural understanding of their personas up to that time. In short, it was Weezer “selling out” again and then taking it in stride; sure, it was ironic and a lot of good fun, but once again showed how confident the band was at the time, destroying all critical goodwill they had built up.  

In hindsight, this was probably for the best: Cuomo and Co. have, in the past decade, proven themselves far better as pop practitioners than they were at making incel bait during the ’90s. Their two separate releases from this year, January’s OK Human and May’s Van Weezer, help validate this argument: While both stand on opposite sides of the musical spectrum, they share enough of the same structural DNA to be comparable as well-modulated exercises in late style. The former is a collection of baroque pop recorded with a full orchestra, which was started in early 2019 and then shelved, only to be picked back up during quarantine; the latter, an homage to ’80s hair-metal and hard-rock, was conceived earlier, but was rushed to coincide with a massive 2020 summer tour planned with Green Day and Fall Out Boy. They were made alongside one another, and together show a natural maturation in Weezer’s songwriting abilities and ambitions. They form something of a contrasting diptych for the band, one that’s often silly and sincere in equal spades — in other words, a modern Weezer album.

Take the first three tracks on OK Human, where each piece is thoroughly conceptualized and constructed on its own terms, yet are together able to cohere into a grander tapestry of existential crisis. The instrumental choices here — the swelling cellos on “Grapes of Wrath,” the harmonious violin section on “Aloo Gobi” — never sacrifice the group’s consistently catchy melodies, and function and groove in similar fashion to their current material. While the album’s production is lavish and glossy, the songwriting is personal and withdrawn, resulting in some of the band’s most authentic and relatable musings on the precariousness of modern living. Cuomo’s perspective on Covid life can on occasion drift into cliché (people are on their phones too much, living with your immediate family kinda sucks) and opener “All My Favorite Songs” is a bit mopey, but he expresses enough raw earnestness that it feels less like a state of the union on How We Live, and more like a look at one man’s musical inspirations as coping mechanism, the latter embraced fully on penultimate “Here Comes the Rain,” a sunny ode to optimism during hard times. He then calls out for help on “La Brea Tar Pits” — “I don’t want to die ’cause there’s still so much to give” — ending the album with a hopeful gesture: one desperate hand reaching for another, understanding the need for human connection when we continue to be further isolated from the world around us. 

Van Weezer, on the other hand, is pure escapism, fueled by the same type of bratty Rock Band-esque cosplay Machine Gun Kelly has been engaging with for half a year now. There are riffs and solos abound, songs about never growing up, some cringe lyrics asking for “one more hit” from “daddy”; it’s a record devoid of any relationship to current reality, like the events of the past year never actually happened. Given what’s being attempted here, this is probably the best way to proceed: We’re here for sticky melodies, some dumb fun, and an excuse to act like any of this music isn’t deeply uncool. There are a couple of slick and obvious interpolations, in case you couldn’t immediately tell the influences here — “Crazy Train” has its iconic opening repurposed on “Blue Dream,” a cheese-filled move on an album that could charitably be described as knowingly cheesy; “All The Good Ones” borderline steals the same basic stomp-stomp-clap-pause beat of “We Will Rock You” — but this is still River’s show, and his synthesis of all these stray sonic elements never stops being enjoyable to some degree. It’s a dream project that’s been fully realized by one of rock’s most adamant romantics, a man who once thought it was acceptable to pen a song about how much he loved an 18-year old (or was she 14…) who has confidently grown into his own much beyond such juvenile antics.

Writer: Paul Attard   Section:Pop Rocks


Credit: Heaven by Marc Jacobs

Bladee

Confess your sins,” Bladee begs listeners towards the start of The Fool, inviting an act of apparent purification, self-healing, and resolve. “I guess I’m just the fool, I don’t know anything,” he later laments over Ripsquad’s glimmering synth-pop beat, confused and downtrodden by this revelation, one that inverts his opening command and discloses a vulnerable admission. The song’s 808 snares continue to kick, his voice wails in the distance; in a sense, this is Bladee’s “Rockstar Made” in terms of sequencing (first track on their respected albums) and general intent (kicking things off in media res). Taken as is, The Fool’s intro also serves as something of a microcosm into what the Bladee experience entails these days: the inner-turmoil that’s imbued into each track’s Neville Goddard-inspired lyrics; the radical epicurean morals that are instilled into the listener’s soul; Bladee’s lush Swedish vocals liberally slathered with auto-tune; and the cosmic, cloud rap soundscapes that brush up against electronica stylings. He’s been on a hot streak recently — one comparable to Michael Jackson in the ’80s and Stevie Wonder during the early ’70s — where the sonic ambition of each of his projects has increased in tandem with his critical acclaim. He’s only getting better, more confident with his craft, and it’s showing on each of his newer releases in more definable terms. He hasn’t really improved as a singer, or even changed up the formula that radically; if anything, he’s unified the broadest elements of his expansive sound into something more easily digestible and cohesive, something far more harmonious than one would imagine possible considering all of the underlying circumstances. But one doesn’t need to be a good rapper to make rap music — and while Bladee isn’t really rapping, he’s not really singing either, so the same logic can easily be applied to his vocals.

The Fool, by that metric, is a breakthrough for the Swedish artist, one that finds his genre swapping at its most polished and refined, as if ready for mainstream public consumption (Bladee even says at one point that he’s a “good boy” who refrains from cussing). The ephemeral magic carpet journey “Let’s Ride” is propelled forward by its minimal trap beat, but its gentle vocal harmonies and Noble Eightfold Path promotion balance out any supposed edge to the production. The whimsical “I Think…” serves as a good counterbalance to the hedonistic “Hotel Breakfast,” which leads into the likes of the rave-inspired “Thee 9 Is Up” and poppy “I Want It That Way” — all before nearly capsizing from the weight of “BBY” and its bright, bouncy synth-heavy intro. The sonic palette Bladee engages with here is impressive not only in its rich versatility, but also in how miraculously well-tuned each track is structurally — love or hate the guy, he knows how to write solid choruses and air-tight melodies, ones that seem like pure gibberish on a first listen and… to be honest, still sorta sound the same on a second. But these are mild shortcomings, never strong enough to ruin the holistic achievement. For those willing to engage, they should eagerly repent while they still can; the rest of you heathens can remain sinful.

Writer: Paul Attard   Section: What Would Meek Do?


Ashley Monroe

Ever since Like a Rose, the 2013 album that was for all intents and purposes her debut, Ashley Monroe has been all but unparalleled in balancing country music’s past and its present. A traditionalist but not a purist, she writes songs that embody classic country craft, but infuses them with a modern sensibility, pop tunefulness, and sly humor. Rosegold represents a significant departure: the first album she’s made that seems to belong completely to the modern world. In press materials for the album, Monroe cites a curious range of influences that includes Kanye West and Childish Gambino, reference points that make sense when you hear the album’s shimmering synths, gauzy vocal effects, and thumping drum loops. If you wanted a more country-centric touchstone, you might think of the wind-tunnel effects on Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball, or, more precisely, the gentle psychedelia of Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour; yet even those records conjure some grit that you just won’t hear on the thoroughly sleek and polished Rosegold.

Whatever else you might think about the album, it’s a bold stylistic experiment, and Monroe should be credited for committing to this new direction so completely. What’s frustrating is that, in making something so disruptive, Monroe has to really lean away from her core strengths. Her typically-sharp songwriting is sanded down in favor of generically good vibes, songs that vaguely convey what it’s like to be in love but seem to studiously avoid saying anything distinctive about her beloved. (Representative lyric: “When you put your hands on me, it’s like the Midas touch.”) Perhaps this flat writing was necessary to sustain the smooth, frictionless quality of the music, but it results in an album that emphasizes mood at the expense of depth or character; you’ll remember it for its warm, sensual ambiance, but individual songs feel fairly disposable. That’s a little bit of a disappointment coming from the writer who brought such emotional acuity to modern classics like The Blade or Pistol Annies’ Hell on Heels, though it’s not to say that Rosegold is absent charm. She still writes lovely melodies, and her soft East Tennessee twang meshes with these glossy soundscapes far more gracefully than you might have imagined. That’s enough to make the album work perfectly well as mood music, even if it all seems to evaporate the moment you stop playing it.

Writer: Josh Hurst   Section: Rooted & Restless


Credit: Jonas Bang

Iceage

Suspicions surrounding Iceage’s “authenticity” have gone hand-in-hand with the band’s rise to (indie rock) fame, even all the way back to the Danish punk band’s 2011 debut New Brigade, an album of snarling, chic hardcore that U.S. music writers scrambled to anoint, placing it high up in a number of then prominent music blogs’ year-end lists. The music on New Brigade and its similarly styled/received follow up You’re Nothing is, to be fair, cool and good, but there’s also little doubt that Iceage (and their team) are an image conscious outfit, having since redefined and reoriented the band’s persona and genre leanings a couple times over, moving toward more traditional pop melody and swaggering balladry; great material for music critics, albeit the sort that fuels dopey, wide-eyed headlines (“grim-faced nihilists to wearied soothsayers”) and performative hand-wringing over the band’s early interest in fascist imagery that’s never really gotten resolved.

All of these favorite narrative touchpoints have been trotted back out in time for Iceage’s latest album, Seek Shelter, a pre-pandemic recording that saw release this past May via Mexican Summer. This fifth LP finds the band more or less free of any of the hardcore trappings that once characterized their sound (primary vocalist and songwriter Elias Rønnenfelt has stated that this was always the band’s intent, their noisier, blunter work conceived to accommodate his then limited English vocabulary, though why their lyrics had to be in English is another question), expanding their more recently favored country western palette out into a gonzo rock n’ roll fusion of Americana and Brit Pop. What’s left of the Iceage from before — Rønnenfelt’s accented, sneering delivery, occasionally antagonistic, post-punk song compositions — mostly serves to ground Seek Shelter’s soaring, arena-minded anthems, which otherwise look toward sunnier, more expansive genres for inspiration. This latest pivot has the benefit of being assisted by Spaceman 3’s Peter Kember, who serves as producer here, the ‘90s space/psych icon’s expertise put to good use in keeping these longer (Seek Shelter’s nine tracks almost all sit in the 4-5 minute range), multi-section compositions from coming apart. And lord knows, there’s quite a bit to keep track of on these songs: opener “Shelter Song” introduces a backing choir into the band’s repertoire in support of a Noel Gallagher-type chorus, which is followed closely by “High and Hurt,” a meandering, grumbly take on cowpunk that suddenly careens into full on interpolation of “Let the Circle Be Unbroken.” 

These are ideas that the band toyed with on 2018’s Beyondless and their 2014 creative high point Plowing Into the Field of Love (Nick Cave-ian ballad “Love Kills Slowly” most especially in line with that album’s vibe), but here they allow themselves a bigger canvas, Rønnenfelt’s songwriting now prioritizing a delayed catharsis to the more immediate, lascivious ones he previously favored. There’s also some amusing flirtation with less trendy iterations of the arena aesthetic with apparent Jefferson Starship homage “Gold City” (another band known for radical reinvention), and “Vendetta,” which plays out like a Muse song had that band possessed any menace to spare. In this way, Seek Shelter is a neat trick rendered legitimate by Iceage’s crafty musicianship and Kemper’s expert production, a series of smartly curated vibes, surprisingly light despite the bulk of its ambitions. Rønnenfelt and co. still have a great capacity to surprise and thrill, this music likely to translate nicely into the live settings they hoped to accommodate by this album’s delay, though it’s more clear than ever that Iceage is defined by showmanship above all else.

Writer: M.G. Mailloux   Section: Foreign Correspondent


Juliana Hatfield

Keeping her prolific streak going, Juliana Hatfield returns with the devilishly-titled Blood, a follow-up to her previous record of original content, Weird, and her cover albums that have peppered release lists with much-deserved fanfare over the past couple of years. With Hatfield’s latest, replete with her signature stylings and a tight runtime, there’s a lot to enjoy and little time to do it.

Lyrically, Blood finds Hatfield contending with a variety of topics, including struggles with uncertainty about her safety, as the album was primarily recorded in her home during the pandemic, and anger directed at fascist political icons and consumerism, a familiar target from several of her earlier records.  She plays nearly every instrument on the album, casting a haziness over her identifiable sound,  as fuzzed-out guitars take the lead, occasionally glitching and soaring not unlike an ‘80s hair classic. Her voice remains as clear as ever, dual-layered and mixed at many points to be the focal point of any given track.  This sonic precision and intelligence is what makes her solo music, as well as the multiple groups she’s a member of, so enticing: here, these feverish elements gel into a cohesive sound and vision, produced with clarity so as to keep an eye on her messaging. It’s a familiar mode for Hatfield, and on Blood she turns her criticisms of the previous presidential administration into an aural texture, the instrumentation creating a murkiness that matches the lyrics’ preoccupation with the taxing mental state many of us endured over the past four years. 

But the record’s political fodder isn’t used merely to express personal woes; rather, Hatfield pitches it as a wounded expression of hope for future generations, and it’s in this specific feeling that the album finds its footing. Indeed, it’s something of a salvation for Blood; despite the technical acumen, there can be some admitted blurring from track to track (also seen from album to album across Hatfield’s discography) as her go-to-the-well approach to theme and sound can leave her work feeling recycled in its less inspired moments. It’s part-and-parcel of the catch-22 that many established musicians (especially those with distinctive sounds) must battle against: to produce a new work that is recognizably of the artist or to push toward new territory. It’s not a complex dilemma to understand, but that doesn’t mean there is a roadmap to the right answer. Striking the right balance is often key — whether for critical appraisal and commercial consumption — and that’s exactly what Hatfield manages on her latest, supporting her ruminative lyricism with an intelligent, wily sound, and vice versa. It’s on the strength of this that Blood proves to be an engaging listen for anyone familiar with her work, but even more impressively, this far into her career, a record that works equally as well as an entry point to her catalog. Hatfield should relish the W, but let’s hope it doesn’t take another miserable quadrennial to inspire Hatfield’s next great effort.

Writer: Andrew Bosma   Section: Ledger Line

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