As someone who generally struggles with the tropes of country music, Saint Cloud has been a gentle epiphany for me. I’m not sure it’s the modern classic that many claim it to be, but then I’m in no position to make that call. Still, I do think the latest record from Waxahatchee is a triumph in many ways.
Katie Crutchfield’s songwriting is intimate, yet accomplished, and the music is mixed and produced expertly. Her words are strikingly candid; a wonderful contrast to the soft and elegant arrangements spread across the album. Crutchfield takes the most extreme emotions and often lays them down with a vacant tone, such is the confidence of her current mindset. There is a sense of maturity, both musically and emotionally, that can make Saint Cloud a downright compelling listen.
Early highlight “Fire” provides a deliberately scant arrangement that allows Crutchfield’s vocal melodies to soar, and the additional harmonies are simply gorgeous. “War” strikes gold using the opposite approach, with verses that build momentum by the way of driving, dynamic drums. It’s a spirited song that comes at just the right time.
The best is most certainly saved for last, however. Although my country knowledge is limited, the closing two tracks on here are some of the most beautiful moments I’ve ever experienced in the genre. Crutchfield’s delicate and fragile vocals come through with majestic force. To witness these songs being played live in a chapel would be quite the experience. Someone should work on that.
Despite these highlights, Saint Cloud does contain a few songs that nod along at such a lethargic pace, they end up having very little impact. Waxahatchee shows strength in both the softer and stronger moments, but tracks like “The Eye” feel too comfortable middling in mid-tempo country.
Fortunately, the strong lyrical content means Saint Cloud is never truly dull. I just wish there were more moments like “War” that strike with real urgency. Even so, the fact that I’m even somewhat infatuated with a country-tinged record just reveals the quality on show. Long-time fans of Waxahatchee are presumably delighted, and rightly so. This comes wholly recommended.
7 out of 10
On the album artwork of Saint Cloud, Katie Crutchfield sits atop a pickup truck overflowing with roses and gazes up at a clear blue sky. Never has a cover more perfectly captured the character of its music. The album’s like roaming the Great Plains in tasteful knitwear.
All homely arrangements and honeyed vocals, the album manages to make its country music twang feel contemporary. There are shades of artists like Julia Jacklin and Courtney Barnett – softly spoken singer-songwriters with more earnestness than focus – but I think this is a step above. The country DNA keeps the album’s back straight and actually makes the fuzzy tenderness all the more touching.
I can’t quite snuggle up to what goes on, though. Like so much music from the genre this feels like a love letter to a way of life I don’t understand. It doesn’t quite make the leap out of heartfelt bumpkin territory, closing tracks “Ruby Falls” and “St. Cloud” being the gorgeous exceptions.
7 out of 10
The latest release from Katie Crutchfield’s music project brings a softer, warmer, country sound to the mix. Coming from previous material, listeners might expect a crunch to the guitars, lo-fi production and a healthy smattering of raucous noisiness. However, with its edges chamfered, it’s Crutchfield’s vocals that take centre stage.
Fortunately, vocals are strong across the record. It’s clear this is a change in direction for both artist and project, and its lyrics don’t attempt to hide it. Self-acceptance, striving for better health and the negativity of addiction provide a solid basis for the album. “Fire” makes for a stand out track, with a breezy pace and some lovely vocal harmonies. The problem I’ve often run into here is a similar gentle head-nodding pace across much of the album. Instrumentals are shiny, modern, folk and country lines that easily lose me, and as poignant as the vocal lines are lyrically, they’re hard pushed to hold the album up alone when instrumentals don’t hit the mark.
It wasn’t until I listened to the final two tracks outside of the tracklisting that they made far more of an impact. “Ruby Falls” and closer, “St. Cloud”, aren’t radically different to the rest of the album, but the former provides a suspenseful, delicate instrumental that compliments the vocals beautifully, the latter provides an even further stripped back, intimate performance that shimmers around Crutchfield’s vocal line.
There’s some beautiful material in here, and I’d certainly give the last two tracks a look if not the whole album. Ultimately, however, Saint Cloud hasn’t grabbed me, and it seems to miss a variety that the project’s previous releases have benefitted from. A lazy Sunday listen for sure, but one easily lost in the shuffle once it’s been and gone.
6 out of 10