Album Review: Cailin Russo – INFLUX

[Self-released; 2023]

Cailin Russo has modeled extensively, starred in two Justin Bieber videos, and released two previous EPs, 2018’s raucous House with a Pool and 2020’s more restrained The Drama. Her full-length debut, Influx, highlights her remarkable and relatively radical maturation as a singer, songwriter, and pop presence. Drawing innovatively from various canons, Russo has crafted a compelling set of songs, Influx landing as one of 2023’s early and exhilarating surprises.

“Lonely Estate” highlights Russo navigating ethereal verses and craft-savvy choruses. Loose and brushy snares accent her pained yet crystalline vocals. “His & Hers” is built around bass throbs and a staccato percussion part. As the song progresses, Russo dials up the airy textures, doubles down on beat-centrism, and offers some of her sultriest vocals. In the process, she bridges the gap between Lana Del Rey’s glam-soaked dreampop and SZA’s rebellious upgrades of classic R&B templates.

Much of contemporary pop revolves around the integration of fringe and mainstream tactics. Depending on the project, downcast and compressed vocals, destabilizing instrumental mixes, and/or quirky lounge beats are offset by hummable melodies, accessible lyrics, and sensual vocals. Throughout Influx, Russo demonstrates that she’s a student of pop’s centerstage and its periphery. Moreover, she seems well-schooled on the ways in which fertile paradoxes are forged by realigning what initially appear as irreconcilable elements.

The reverb-y echoes on “Die Down”, for example, invoke a notably psychedelic and disorienting effect. Russo’s melody, on the other hand, is understated yet erotic, the entire piece brimming with palpable appreciation for the mind-body-earth connection. “Boys Taste Like Drugs” is an ecstasy-fueled dance-punk gem, Russo vacillating between stammered proclamations and urgent shrieks. Throughout, she tips her tiara to Trent Reznor and The Matrix soundtrack. And yet, the piece conjures a Saturday night rave circa RIGHT NOW – the kind of scene, these days, that takes over the mall as readily as the abandoned warehouse. This is the music that for at least 30 years has made the mainstream cringe while secretly creaming in their corduroys.

On “Psycho Freak”, Russo’s vocals are semi-narcotized, blended into a beat-heavy and hypnotic mix, her melody unshakeable. The song points to Russo’s interest in recasting the timbre of the jazz chanteuse, a proclivity shared by Billie Eilish, particularly as expressed on 2021’s Happier Than Ever. However, while Eilish’s “Oxytocin”, for example, collapses into an antsier and more outsider-inflected take, Russo’s foray remains organically eclectic, the singer moving between a back-alley opiate vibe and the kind of anthemic deliveries that turned Ticketmaster into a behemoth.

“Fate’s Interlude” and “Lemonade” underscore that Russo has successfully maneuvered the unavoidable influence of Queen Swift. A cadence or melodic movement occasionally sounds familiar, though Russo ultimately claims her own niche, energetically and in terms of perspective, transmitting a raw sexuality that Swift would instinctively filter. Also, Russo effuses an intimacy that Swift rarely accomplishes. With Swift, like Dylan, it’s the commitment to performance that’s impeccable (what’s authentic and what’s persona, we ask, and in the end, if it sounds this good, who gives a fuck?). With Russo, it’s the seeming distrust of performance, or more precisely, the discernable desire to transcend performance, that’s, well, not exactly impeccably rendered, but certainly uber-hyper-convincing.21st-century pop, in addition to being multi-aesthetic, succeeds to the degree that it’s able to dialog with comparable work.

With Influx, Russo has found tenable ground in a densely populated genre and is engaged in multiple conversations, her sequence occurring as boldly interactive, distinct, refreshing. What could be more 2023? – the line between originality and derivation blurred, discourse serving as our fire in the dark.