For a while, it seemed like nothing ever came easy for Wilco. Early classics like Being There and Summerteeth bore the marks of personal and professional strife, from inter-band turmoil to lyrics gesturing toward substance abuse. The band’s masterpiece, 2002’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, had an incubation so fraught it warranted its own documentary feature. But somewhere along the way, Jeff Tweedy and co. made the transition from tortured artists to easygoing journeymen. They’re locked into their stablest and longest-running lineup ever, and convene every few years at Tweedy’s Loft studio to produce records increasingly marked by their warmth, casualness, and good humor. Cruel Country sounds almost like it could be the capstone of their journeyman era: Though its lyrics reflect a dispeptic national mood, the music itself feels easeful, unhurried, and content; for 21 songs and nearly 80 minutes, the album invites us to bask in the band’s unforced chemistry, and to take pleasure in their leisurely songcraft. Even the record’s attempts to reconcile with Wilco’s contested country-roots bona fides, long a subject of discomfort for Tweedy, suggests a newfound sanguinity. Chalk it up to age and experience; or, a long-deserved sabbath from constant toil.
Of course, that sanguinity comes with some tradeoffs. Those earlier Wilco albums roiled with dramatic tension, giving the music a crisp, kinetic snap; Summerteeth was spring-loaded with experimental pop pleasures, and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot wore its exploratory zeal in an array of textures and aural delights. There’s not a lot of snap to Cruel Country, an album that’s awash in pedal steel ambiance and rarely moves beyond a strolling tempo. There are no Nels Cline freakouts here, no krautrock excursions, no warped pop masterpieces in the vein of “Shot in the Arm” or “Heavy Metal Drummer.” The album does work up some steam for the brisk Bakersfield shuffle in “Falling Apart (Right Now),” while “A Lifetime to Find” offers a spritely take on honky tonk. But mostly, this is an album that unspools its pleasures patiently and quietly: Its character is summed up by “Ambulance,” a campfire ballad that’s all rustling guitar strings and late-night crooning, or else by the clip-clop percussion in the title track.
An album this long and this even-keel can occasionally lapse into tediousness; and cliche though it may be to complain about a double album’s generous length, there’s a shapelessness here that begs for a more ruthless editor. It’s hard not to wonder if that earlier version of Wilco, the one that had to fight and scrape for every take, would have ever made an album so lax, so low-key. But it’s equally true that the earlier version of Wilco couldn’t have made an album where they sounded quite so comfortable in their skin, so happy to lean into their age, experience, and burnished songcraft. And there is so much here that speaks to their refinement as a band, their intuitive interplay and chemistry. Their c&w signifiers never scan as inauthentic, any more than their more exploratory songs (like the weird two-part suite “Bird Without a Tail/Base of My Skull”) feel forced or out of place. And as a lyricist, Tweedy has found a real sweet spot between clarity and insinuation: Here he offers a state-of-the-union that’s borne of compassion and concern, surveying America’s dysfunction not as a polemicist, but as a sad citizen who’s not quite ready to give up hope. His reflections warrant time and attention, and with Cruel Country, Wilco has provided space for exactly that.
Ethel Cain arrived right on time, America currently enraptured with the style and cultural signifiers of its southern and midwestern states (a reaction to “Trump voter” media voyeurism, or the lasting legacy of American Honey?), which the Florida-born, Alabama-based singer-songwriter embodies and performs intuitively. The severe, popstar persona of Hayden Anhedönia, the Ethel Cain project is at once an aesthetic and thematic piece with a number of other cult, SoundCloud contemporaries (think Sematary), yet ultimately fairly stands out within this milieu, quietly traversing a genre range running from pop country to shoegaze. Having attracted an appropriately fervent fan base over her last couple years of activity (three EPs and a generous library of singles and covers), Cain, still self-releasing through her Daughters of Cain label, now takes an assured, ambitious step forward with first studio album Preacher’s Daughter.
Clocking in at a feature-length 75 minutes and devised in two-act structure, Preacher’s Daughter has Ethel detailing her own sad, grisly demise at the hands of a violent lover. A modern-day, J.T. Leroy-type narrative with supernatural, southern gothic trappings, the album’s 13 songs chart a fatalistic course for its protagonist, from an abusive father to an abusive boyfriend, pursuing an unreal notion of American freedom to morbid ends. Though, with a crafty pop songwriting sensibility to match the skillful, classical storytelling, Preacher’s Daughter can be appreciated without the listener knowing the more specific details and context informing Cain’s lyrics, the larger narrative is apparent and felt, if not obviously linear on first listen. Also working as a series of individual tableaux and sketches, Preacher’s Daughter nimbly walks the line between the personal and the cultural, autobiography and broader cultural metaphor, obscuring where they come apart until macabre, Poe-esque closers “Sun Bleached Flies” and “Strangers,” as well as the otherworldly instrumentals (“Televangelism” and “August Underground”) that lead in to them. That latter track, “August Underground” (titled for Fred Vogel’s limit-testing, found-footage serial killer movie of the same name), suggests the gruesome extremes Cain’s music angles toward, though even at its most disturbed (the dark, doomy “Ptolemaea” on this project), it’s always interestingly offset by her penchant for reworking pop sonics. Early tracks like “American Teenager” and “A House in Nebraska” read as playful send-ups of the romanticism and relative restraint of industry artists like Taylor Swift and Bruce Springsteen in their songs about life in America’s Heartland, but Cain also has the musicianship to back up her passive critique, pulling off rousing country western pop on the former track before sliding into downbeat folk. You can also glimpse the influence of acts like Mazzy Star and Smashing Pumpkins, but never in a showy postmodern, genre-bending way, instead asserting itself as the natural throughline between these points of influence. Grand in scope without coming off as overly determined, Preacher’s Daughter suggests fascinating and unpredictable stardom for Ethel Cain.
There’s a solid EP worth of material that’s hiding in plain sight on Leikeli47’s third studio album Shape Up, one that emerges after an active listener takes the required initiative necessary to find it — meaning you just have to do a little digging to find the good stuff, delete one or two (or a few more) tracks that ultimately gunk things up a bit too much, and you’ll end up with a confident-sounding release that’s a tad more to the point, and all the more exciting for it. Which, for a 14-track project, isn’t exactly the type of glowing praise that usually demands much attention — but Leikeli47 has proven herself to be a talent worth watching, one who works too infrequently to garner much media attention (it’s been nearly four years since her last album Acrylic) and comes off a tad unadorned compared to most other rappers (besides the always wearing a face mask thing), but has a consistent track record and seems to only be improving her technical abilities as a rapper. But there’s no denying that Shape Up often makes for strange bedfellows with the radio-friendly R&B market, and genuinely attempts to position Leikeli as something of a more bona fide pop star than what her previous releases seemed to indicate. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of career pivot, but the end results produce some real “jack of all trades, master of none” type music that dilutes what could have been a stronger collection of more sonic coherence. It’s not really a betrayal of what’s come before, but reflective more of a misunderstanding of where to take her career going forward.
As it stands now, the unmarked album is at least assured in its front half: Opener “Chitty Bang,” while undeniably being what InRO Editor-in-Chief Luke Gorham called a “straight-up Run the Jewels song” upon a first listen (this was featured in Madden 2K22 Soundtrack before being given an official release, and carries that particularly virile sports vibe throughout), kicks things off appropriately enough, even managing to segue into the next track (“Secret Service”) with little overt fanfare. A few songs later, you get the nice ambiance of “LL Cool J,” with an even nicer hook stuck to the bridge — specifically, the call and response of “When I walk by / Tell me what do you see?” and the following answer (“You see a young LL Cool J / That means / Ladies love cool jewelry”) — followed by the fast-tempo of “Zoom” keeping the momentum moving right after. But then there’s the boneless “Done Right,” followed by the even blander “Free To Love” (sequencing on albums really is a lost art form these days, huh?), with both tracks entering into sonic territory that’s commendably versatile but not exactly terribly engaging, especially stuck back-to-back. There are a few hot moments coming after this lull — “Carry Anne” and “Instant Classic,” even if the latter attempts to perpetuate “AOTY” talk that’s wholly unearned by the actual music here — which are promptly followed by total duds (“Baseball” and “Hold My Hand”) that make for an uneven, often contradictory listening experience on the whole. There’s admittedly a hint of cosmic irony for a release titled Shape Up being plagued by issues of bloat, but unfortunately for a 45-minute body of work, that’s just not quite good enough.
Florence + the Machine
After a four-year gap, Florence and the Machine is back with Dance Fever, their fifth studio album packed tight with heavy drum beats, characteristically energetic vocals from Florence Welch, and an overall darker vibe than has been glimpsed on their previous work. It’s a shift that actually serves the group well after sticking to their comfort zone for so long, both for the witchy persona that Welch seems to embody and the cohesiveness it lends to the record’s overall tone.
For the first time in her career, Welch seems stunned into a kind of stillness, not sonically — the cuts still pulse with energy here — but thematically. The tracks on Dance Fever were largely written right as the first lockdowns hit in 2020, and while many artists turned that uncertainty into albums about loneliness, lost relationships, and personal illness, Welch instead takes a mirror to her career and artistry, opting to take her introspective lens to her songwriting and work rather than more (inter)personal territory. Her voice is known for the way it can fill an arena with sound, projected and powerful with every note. This creates a stark tonal contrast on the record, as the singer lyrically grapples with whether she wants to continue in this professional mode — the cycle of writing, recording, performing, repeat. It’s a more wholly intimate approach for an artist whose whole persona has been that of certain and emphatic emotions that she projects to an audience every night on stage.
The biggest impediment to this new mode, then, is that the dance tracks that the album is ostensibly named for don’t land with the group’s usual vigor. While Florence and the Machine has had success in their EDM collaborations in the past, it seems strange on a record titled Dance Fever to work with the likes of Jack Antonoff and Dave Bayley, two artists who don’t tend toward the genre in any sense. Chalk it up to a minor misstep, as the album isn’t built upon these songs despite its name, but the schism between intent and finished product is distinctly notable when these tracks pop up. Still, any fan of Florence’s booming voice is likely to be quite thrilled by this installment in her catalog, with the instrumentation here reliably delivering a perfect format with which to frame her voice.
Dance Fever was originally meant to be a victory lap for the group, likely the last album before a long creative hiatus. Instead, by all accounts the effort reinvigorated Welch, kicking off what one hopes will be another exciting era in a career that has felt flattened of late. With soaring vocals, engaging lyrical pivots, a newfound palette of emotional intimacy, and production that mostly bleeds Jack Antonoff’s involvement of all his annoying inclinations, Dance Fever is a record easily poised to appeal to long-standing fans, while also (re)inventive enough to bring new ones into the fold.
The latest artist to offer up a perspective on the chaos and disruption of the Covid pandemic, Australian EDM producer Flume returns with his third album (fourth if counting 2019 mixtape Hi This Is Flume), Palaces, a vibrant, loosely conceptual dance record conceived in response to the gloom and isolation that defined 2020. A cute narrative that has likely been echoed by any number of musicians releasing in the last year (although this one is supposedly informed by a plot involving a motocross racer who is the embodiment of nature), and one that Flume hardly needs to justify the tone of the music for, Palaces is not exactly a huge switch-up for the high-energy producer. Arriving on the scene in 2012 when electronic dance music still had a firm grip on mainstream, Flume was one of a handful of artists who became a superstar off of hyped, festival-minded dubstep and tasteful, high-profile remixes. Since then, a lot of significant names from that moment have fallen back into cult status, persisting as lineup filler, but Flume has managed a bit more than that, ever so gently tweaking his sound over the years while pursuing collaborations with formidable, eclectic talents. Aforementioned mixtape Hi This Is Flume proved to be the most fruitful of these ventures, a manic, SOPHIE-influenced piece that proved snarkier and edgier than his previous work (JPEGMafia and Slowthai features), though still approachable and upbeat. Now a few years removed (and yes, rocked by a year-long quarantine), Flume has returned to the studio album format, and delivers an even more refined take on the sound that has defined the majority of his career.
Once more collaborating with graphic designer/NFT artist Jonathan Zawada for the album art, listeners are greeted by a headshot of an eastern whipbird, (presumably) painted a digital dayglo. Zawada (who designed the cover for 2016’s Skin and its various subsequent EPs and remix albums) specializes in these sorts of uncanny/poppy, digitally manipulated portraits of fauna and flora, which happen to be the ideal avatars to represent this sort of music. Clocking in at a maybe just-too-long 46 minutes, the record is still a mostly breezy ride, coasting off the bombastic energy of Flume’s gleeful screeching EDM. Forgoing the rap-dabbling that has been a highlight of his last couple of releases in favor of more dance- and R&B-centric female vocalists, Palaces was apparently built from the final (title track) up, riffing off featured artist Damon Albarn’s contributions, while also drawing from field recordings, which inform the melodies and guest selection here. Ranging from the currently unstoppable Caroline Polachek (contributing ethereal vocals to “Sirens,” not unlike those on Harlecore’s DJ Ocean cuts) to stand-out discovery May-a on the album’s dramatic, lead single “Say Nothing.” But despite the variety of voices here, Flume mostly keeps his collaborators to delivering big hooks, written as effectively vague affirmations for modern times (the one diversion: Virgen María’s funny, sleazy hyperpop take “Only Fans”). It all works considerably well, even if it’s a bit less alluring than Hi This Is Flume’s genuine playfulness. But ultimately, the record’s straightforwardness doesn’t negate the catchiness of these songs, nor their generally affable qualities.