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Waxahatchee – Saint Cloud, a Jon Hutchinson review

There are people who exist on the same list of foods their entire life, eating a confined diet of trusted fare, trading adventure for trust. All the efforts of celebrity chefs and lifestyle magazines and websites to tempt them to set forth on treks of discovery, through different cultures and influences, passes them by like an unseen satellite in the night sky.

People can be the same with music, playing the same albums over and over again like a version of Groundhog Day. Venturing outside of this playlist is unthinkable, whatever may happen? Will their soul be removed and sold to the highest bidder? Will their first born be taken away for sacrifice to the deity of immovable objects? Who knows, maybe the risk outweighs any perceived reward. But there is joy to be found in tasting new music, putting plate after plate on the table and sampling all the flavours, finding some we don’t like and some that make us devour the whole plateful.

It can sometimes take just a few seconds of hearing a new artist to switch to all alert, a response that has to be primeval, we can’t explain it any other way, it lacks rationality, relying entirely on an emotional response. That first few seconds, and you need more, you need to hear all of this, and devour it.

Waxahatchee might just have that effect. It’s simple and sparse, and in a world of over thinking and over engineering, it stands out like a fresh blade of grass after the drought. Katie Crutchfield is Waxahatchee, named after the place in Alabama, where she grew up. A musical project, it has produced four albums and an EP, each of them exploring and searching influences and sound. Saint Cloud is the latest in this venture and brings a kind of calm after the storm in that this work is more spacious, simple, and yet never naive.

The opening is a crash of cymbals and chorused vocals. ‘Oxbow’ slides almost arrogantly onto the stage sounding cool and distant. The track draws you in to hear more. It doesn’t put a rope around your neck and pull, there’s no need for that, you just wander in, as a casual observer. ‘Fire’ is wonderfully melodic, Crutchfied draws the very soul out of each word, signalling a kind of deep frustration – “I take it for granted, If I could love you unconditionally, If I could iron out the edges of the darkest sky, for some of us it ain’t enough, It ain’t enough”

Lilacs and The Eye cover more traditional acoustic folk/country paths, both stand alone as tuneful but earthy yet vexed songs, with a great visual line in Lilacs: “If my bones are made of delicate sugar”. It is the lyrical quality of this album that stands out. Some might almost dismissively use the label ‘angst’, but there is depth here, sometimes symbolic, often wrenching and brim full of frustration, but the words alone stand as thought provoking to read. ‘Hell’ follows, with its regretful, angry and enigmatic tones.

‘Witches’ could have appeared forty years ago, such is the mode of travel this album takes you on. Early Dave Edmunds, The Pretenders and Nick Lowe spring to mind as the backing track evokes memories of pop music with melodic intent. ‘War’ carries on this theme, It’s almost like the whole album is designed as couplets of musical thoughts, fleeting through before the next idea is explored.

Then we come to Arkadelphia, if you ever felt like you couldn’t change your world, Katie Crutchfield confirms that thought. For a subject that provokes debate and often a vitriolic response, the song has a surprisingly light touch, gentle guitar mixed with a country rhythm belies the feelings the work considers. “If I burned out like a light bulb, they’ll say – she wasn’t meant for that life”. ‘Ruby Falls’ follows on from this with “It’s a squalid way to live but it’s the rules of the game”.

We come to the title track of the album, ‘Saint Cloud’. It’s almost dismissive, like whistling in the graveyard to stop the demons from walking up behind you. “There’s nothing left to fear”, and that’s a great way to listen to Katie Crutchfield and Waxahatchee, let it bathe you with its thoughtful and provoking lyrics, enjoy its sparseness, and follow an artist who is developing and changing, always seeking new ground, if you are a musical explorer, we can only await what comes next.

© Jon Hutchinson

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