Waxahatchee: Saint Cloud (Merge) Review | Under the Radar - Music Magazine
Saturday, April 4th, 2020  

Waxahatchee

Saint Cloud

Merge

Mar 25, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


The opening track of Waxahatchee’s (aka Katie Crutchfield) latest album, Saint Cloud, is titled “Oxbow.” Like its name implies, the song gently wends its way through boomy drumbeats and modulating synths to empty out into an alluvial plain of Crutchfield’s relationships with friends, family, lovers, and herself. The song’s twisty path and lo-fi production do little to prepare the listener for the fertile harvest that is to come. In fact, the earliest released single from the album, “Fire,” though patently fine of its own account, is something of a red herring itself. After torching everything down on 2017’s Out In the Storm, Crutchfield leans hard into her childhood vernacular to not only show a softer side, but also to venture the country back roads of her forebears. 

Citing such greats as Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris as key influences, Crutchfield has teamed up with Detroit based folk-duo Bonny Doon to cut her best album to date. There are remnants of her earlier sound, but the low key slide guitar of Storm highlight “8 Ball” becomes the best connection to her latest work. Storm was followed by a pair of Americana-legend Jason Molina covers with Kevin Morby as well as sparse remakes of a handful of tracks from her early side project Great Thunder. With Bonny Doon members Bobby Colombo and Bill Lennox sympathetic backing, which is as caressingly careful as Woods’ support of David Berman last year, Crutchfield is allowed to focus on the quality of her songcraft and letting her vocals finally take center stage.

Though life abounds on the edges of Saint Cloud, its beating heart comes in the form of three shorter (and short-titled) songs square in the center of the proceedings. With the hounds of Bonny Doon nipping at Crutchfield’s heels, “Hell,” “Witches,” and “War” are fast paced pop perfections with a light sprinkling of twang. Three-minute pop songs the likes of which Nick Lowe wrote in his sleep and you could hear honky-tonk combos bashing out any Saturday night walking down the neon reflected streets of 1990’s Austin. “Hell” opens as an acoustic strummed confessional solo, but blossoms into a glorious bar band romp of Telecaster leads, bashing drums, and barrelhouse piano. Likewise, the chiming guitar runs of the rambling “War” find Crutchfield critiquing her own psyche and borrowing the “just give me a minute” ethos of Lucinda Williams’ “Side of the Road.” She assures “it’s got nothing to do with you.”  Those songs sandwich the sly Britpop tension of “Witches.” Crutchfield champions her best friend Marlee Grace, sister Allison Crutchfield, and Snail Mail’s Lindsey Jordan in a tautly wound yarn of solidarity. “If you wanna buy us a round, we might hang out,” the nearly two years sober Crutchfield quips.

Sitting on either side of that trio of songs are two longer form stunners. The preceding “The Eye” floats by as gently as the invisible compulsion that drives her. Presumably written about her relationship with Morby, it’s a sentimental but unflinching drone-height observation of two artists on the go. “We leave love behind without a tear or a long goodbye” is matter-of-factly stated, while also a revelatory glimpse. But certainly the most evocative song on the album is the place-centric “Arkadelphia,” which traverses her Birmingham hometown. On its surface a song of tough love, at its heart it’s really a reminisce on times past and a declaration of where her feet are currently planted. Crutchfield’s soft-focus recollections of driving past tomato stands and Fourth of July picnics, will resonate with anyone that has driven the rural asphalt roads of the South. While reflections of those who questioned her resolve and children not meant for her show a tenderness that has gone unrevealed to this point. 

There are other rewards to be had on Saint Cloud, like the bookended and wholly dissimilar “Can’t Do Much” and title song closer. The heavily jangled and sweetly sung “Can’t Do Much” immediately follows “Oxbow” and is the first surefire signal there is something different afoot here. While “St. Cloud” is a quiet tribute to her father and an imagined trip from Manhattan back to his boyhood home in central Florida. Thousands of miles and a lifetime apart. 

Saint Cloud is as much tribute to the songwriters Crutchfield admires as it is something she owed herself. No hiding behind layers of fuzz or buzzy guitars, Crutchfield puts herself out on full display with great aplomb and loads of insight. Sometimes it takes some time away and distance to realize what it is that requires revisiting or what is best left where it lies. Though the sounds and textures that Crutchfield and her band explore may be new to her, they are seamlessly woven into the quilt that was started long before her time. Or to borrow another idiom, there’s no need to reinvent the wheel when it’s perfectly aligned. Saint Cloud is an instinctual high-water mark for Crutchfield and clear early contender for end of the year lists. (www.waxahatchee.com

Author rating: 8.5/10

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Average reader rating: 7/10



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