Credit: Terrence O'Connor
Album Roundup by InRO Staff Featured Music

Album Roundup — March 2022 | Part 1: Charli XCX, The Weather Station, Bladee & Ecco2K

April 13, 2022

Charli XCX

Charli has been at the forefront of pop for nearly a decade, consistently stretching the genre for the casual listener. From the dark pop of True Romance to the hyperpop garblings of how i’m feeling now, Charli has never sat still, always challenging herself to find new sounds. Not everything requires a total rebirth of style, however. Crash is a step back from the more avant-garde inclinations of Charli’s last album, focusing here on a glossier pop sound. Thankfully, then, Charli’s ear for melodies and riffs maintain a high floor, making for an exciting listen all the way through.

The opening half of the album in particular is remarkably strong, anchored by ace collaborations with Christine and the Queens and Caroline Polachek on second track “New Shapes.” Charli has always been especially adept at selecting agreeable acts to feature on her own music, and all parties sound delightfully at home here amidst the cut’s throbbing synths. This track is particularly impressive as it offers space for all three singers to shine without being overshadowed by one another – it’s a true collaborative effort rather than just a couple throwaway lines from the guests. “Beg For You” offers further proof of the frictionless nature of these team-ups: featuring Rina Sawayama, whose voice fits perfectly alongside Charli’s, the track finds the pair matching each others’ energy line-for-line in a song about delirious, obsessive love, one that should absolutely fill dancefloors come Pride season.

But that’s not to say Charli doesn’t deliver great work on her own. Lead single “Good Ones” is Charli at her best, with a chorus that will have listeners screaming out of their windows. “Baby” is a neat play on a Janet Jackson-style dance track that marries Charli’s contemporary ear to a distinctly ’80s sound. And elsewhere, “Used to Know Me” sounds like a lost Britney track, but paired with a hypnotic Eurodance piano riff. In truth, there isn’t a bad song among the bunch, although the album’s latter half struggles a bit to sustain the same energy across its stretch. “Yuck” is a playful song about how gross it is to be in love and cop to all the mushiness, but it’s a bit boring to have the titular “yuck” rhymed with “fuck,” and Charli’s ill-advised lyrical use of “catch feels” definitely sticks out when the rest of the album feels suspended in dance-pop heaven. That said, every song is concise and stands up to replay – the album clocks in at a relatively brief 35 minutes for 12 tracks, though the deluxe edition (with four additional songs) brings it to a heftier 46 minutes. But these are all, for the most part, short shots of adrenaline; mediocre moments pass quickly, easily absorbed within the larger vibe.

Given the existence of these two versions of Crash, it’s worth noting that the deluxe version of the album is worth the listen over the standard edition. “Selfish Girl” features a pleasant bridge reminiscent of collaborator Sawayama’s song “Bad Friend,” while “Sorry If I Hurt You” is a surprisingly tender apology backed by a strong backbeat. Instead of mere throwaway filler, the add-ons here are great cuts in their own right, works that any dance artist would be proud to release. That they’ve been relegated to bonus status here only speaks to Charli’s skill as a musician: even with what others might consider superfluous extras, she still goes hard and crafts material that lesser artists would be delighted to situate at the fore of their discographies.

Writer: Alex Clifton  Section: Pop Rocks

Credit: Daniel Dorsa

The Weather Station

The Weather Station’s Tamara Lindeman and co. make a quick return with How Is It That I Should Look at the Stars, a companion piece to 2021’s Ignorance. That album was one written and crafted from a place of desperation, a longing for mercy in a world of unrelenting pain and struggle. It was a fully-realized, heterogenous album that sought out new sonic territory and expanded the palette that had previously defined the band. This latest record, then, is a more reflective work, one revisiting past destinations from a fresh perspective, and steeped more in the piano-heavy sounds that marked the group’s early records.

Lindeman’s voice has always been a singularity in the folk scene, both soft and volatile, floating around tracks like a feather, in step with some of the band’s more experimental tendencies. But this time out, there’s less of a panic in her voice; where the last record largely focused its lyrical content on climate change concerns and the havoc that the pandemic inflicted upon society, How Is It is a more assertive in its musings, Lindeman’s eye turned less toward existential doom and more honed on problems that can be resolved within her lifetime. The instrumentation is likewise shifted in character here, sparser than on the previous record, abandoning the full band sound that so recently felt like an apex in the band’s vision. It’s certainly not a bad pivot per se, and the piano does provide welcomely gentle accompaniment, but there’s the feeling that this effort is a step backward for The Weather Station, or else a minor product. There’s actually an interesting dissonance built from the scaled-back sound and the lyrical work here, but that also isn’t explored conceptually enough to lend much depth. The album is at least necessarily brief, reasserting its nature as a supplement of sorts: a breezy but undercooked record is vastly preferable to one saddled with significant bloat, and the brevity on How Is It is in some ways refreshing given the sea of wildly uninteresting long records from artists in recent years. 

Obviously, listeners can’t expect home runs with an artist’s every effort, but it’s notably tougher for a good record such as this one not to exist within the shadow of an excellent one when released in such proximity. Still, despite feeling more conceptually hamstrung and less ambitious relative to Ignorance, How Is It That I Should Look at the Stars, is still a technically proficient album that offers easy listening, which is no small compliment given how mightily major acts have struggled to achieve this baseline lately. And so, if this latest is destined to be regarded as a companion piece to The Weather Station’s heretofore career best, it’s at least an organic one, with Lindeman’s mastery leveraged toward the construction of a more optimistic postscript to Ignorance. Being tethered to that exceptional record doesn’t mean How Is It is any less worthy of its own, slightly muted, praise.

Writer: Andrew Bosma  Section: Ledger Line

Bladee & Ecco2K

If there were any doubts about the sustainability of Drain Gang and the rabid drainer culture they’ve inspired (and surely there were, and still will be), the Swedish psychedelic rap collective has breezed on by them, seemingly unbothered to the point of aloofness. Their audience only gets bigger (as evidenced by the fairly hyped and largely sold-out world tour currently underway), with the gang — primarily rappers Bladee, Ecco2K, Thaiboy Digital, and producer Whitearmor — apparently undaunted by this shift in visibility. In turn, Drain Gang has kept their base fed, maintaining a steady release pace across the roster for the last few years that’s ensured the Drain brand is perpetually part of the conversation (Bladee currently the most prolific/famous member), justified by the quality of their music and an unfaltering authenticity. 

Latest project Crest is a knowing celebration and continuation of the Drain Gang win streak, coming less than a year after Bladee’s excellent The Fool and in the lead-up to the U.S. leg of that aforementioned world tour. Credited to Ecco2K and Bladee and solely produced by Whitearmor, Crest is a proper Drain Gang victory lap, casting the rappers as dueling new-age pop stars trading verses over expansive, unfixed melodies. A concise 30 minutes, the songs on Crest orbit around the album’s second track “5 Star Crest (4 Vattenrum),” a nearly nine-minute opus composed in memory of a friend who recently passed on. Ecco2K and Bladee enter the multi-chapter song lost in darker existential ruminations, still dreamy in tone but lyrically distraught, until Whitearmor turns the page and introduces a series of dramatic melodic switch-ups that recharacterize “5 Star Crest (4 Vattenrum)” as joyous and triumphant, ultimately soundtracking the duo’s reality-altering enlightenment (“Beauty is my drug / I’m the pusher push it” into “Death is beautiful / Give it to me raw”). Downbeat opener “The Flag is Raised” and the subsequent seven tracks that sandwich “5 Star Crest (4 Vattenrum)” play out this narrative in micro, though in the more expected, compact form of hook-centric pop songs. In classic Drain form, these compositions balance a sense of cosmic whimsy with a knowing, postmodern sense of culture that finds resonant pathos in, say, a sly John Denver interpolation that should absolutely be silly. Of course, this is the charm of Drain Gang and the universe they’ve conjured, the passion it has sustained surely a response to the obvious lack of cynical motivation informing these projects. Crest is exemplary of their continued earnestness and suggestive of a creative resilience that confirms theirs as one of the more deservedly hyped pop projects of the moment.

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

Credit: David McClister

Ian Noe

Kentuckian Ian Noe’s debut album, 2019’s Between the Country, was an unusually knotty iteration on the Dave Cobb-produced aesthetic that has come to define “Americana” music. If the album’s style was neither more nor less distinctive than anything else with Cobb’s name attached, Noe’s fascinating POV and idiosyncratic framing of his narratives announced him as one of the genre’s most exciting new talents. For his second album, Noe fulfills the promised greatness of that debut record, but he does so in ways that surprise. Partnering with Andrija Tokic as producer, Noe pivots away from more rote Americana trappings and embraces a rangier and more effective style over the course of River Fools & Mountain Saints. Indeed, what’s most exciting about the album is how smart Tokic’s and Noe’s choices are in marrying the specific stories he’s crafted to arrangements that draw from blues, traditional folk, honky-tonk, and bluegrass. 

Lead single “Pine Grove (Madhouse)” immediately defies expectations, boasting a killer pedal steel part and rollicking bassline that create a real sense of playfulness behind a story of a man who’s contemplating going off the grid. Noe isn’t an artist who’s even as mainstream-adjacent as someone like Tyler Childers, but it’s worth noting that “Pine Grove” opens the album with a single that’s immediately catchier than anything on his debut. That’s no less true of the bluesy “River Fool” or “Burning Down the Prairie,” while there are also more somber, folk-leaning moments like “Ballad of a Retired Man.” What distinguishes Noe’s songwriting throughout the album is that his songs function better as fully-realized character sketches than as straightforward narratives. This choice highlights Noe’s profound empathy – “POW Blues” and “Tom Barrett” both point toward his interest in the Vietnam War – in ways that distinguish his songwriting from many of his contemporaries. Put simply, the pairing of this adventurous singer-songwriter and a producer willing to match his risk-taking makes River Fools & Mountain Saints an early contender for 2022’s best album.

Writer: Jonathan Keefe  Section: Rooted & Restless

Drug Church

As hardcore continues its march (back) to the mainstream, Drug Church rips into the year with Hygiene, a follow-up to 2021 EP Tawny. With this latest, the band does much of what we’ve come to expect Drug Church to do, delivering massive guitar hooks and brutish punk vocals.  Such elements have certainly been a mainstay of both the genre and the band for as long as both have existed, but this latest album begs the question of whether something of a shake-up should be in order.

By genre nature, the lyrics on Hygiene are patently cynical, speaking harshly of the world’s present harsh realities. This tenor extends even to Drug’s Church’s existence as a band, suggesting it may well have been an accident, and that they’re just trying to make it in a sea of other musicians — it’s a brutal but material view of the industry as a whole. With algorithms and streaming services that pay out fractions of a penny, listeners should be shocked that musicians are able to make enough money to live off of their craft. This certainly isn’t a new sentiment — the world of touring exists for a reason — but Drug Church makes this reality a particular target of theirs across many of the tracks here. The sonic expressions on Hygiene likewise trade in long-familiar territory. The band borrows a laundry list of influences, whether it be the hardcore update on grunge-adjacent vocals or the hyper-rhythmic speed drumming of punk rock. And while they prove to be excellent mimics of these genre flourishes, the sum of such liberal cribbing becomes a little stale given the narrow sourcing of their influences — look at what Turnstile’s been doing over the past couple years for a playbook in how to do this right. That’s not to say Drug Church isn’t spicing things up here and there, but the overall impression is of the same trick being repeated over and over, and while what they’re borrowing isn’t ever a problem in itself, it’s the emphasis the group places on borrowing as a foundational concept that leaves a little ingenuity to be desired.

Still, we’re all shaped by late capitalism in one way or another, and bands like Drug Church are just trying to survive in a world built to ensure their financial failure. In many ways, then, their success in this arena is, as they say, a stroke of luck. The band’s artistic successes are more impeachable, but despite failing to transform sonic touchstones into anything distinctly their own, Hygiene is a snappy, sub-30 minute listen that never offends nor overstays its welcome. The group’s raw talent is palpable, and if they have as yet failed to elevate their sound to anything memorable, they remain a lightly engaging act with the distinct potential for more.

Writer: Andrew Bosma  Section: Obscure Object