- LP - indies gold vinyl
The dust hazing the horizon on a late summer’s drive, the sweet melody of leaving your home town determined to break free, the sailing through the bright sky of Thelma and Louise’s 1966 Thunderbird on its doomed final journey to escape. The great American road trip is evocative and laden with cliche, true, but the myth of the open road and the lives full of drama it carves its way through persists in our culture, too. These tropes are the truth, of course, and nothing quite speaks this truth quite as much as the country music of the south and mid-west. The magic sleight of hand of all great country music is to breathe life into these tropes for outsiders, to use these powerful cultural images to paint something truthful and touching about people, wherever they’re from. Plains’ I Walked With You A Ways is THE record of the year for this precise, perfect distillation of the faded American dream and the reality behind it.
Plains is the duo of Jess Williamson and Katie “Waxahatchee” Crutchfield, who came together to record the album as a celebration of the country music of the 70s and 80s, harnassing both singer/songwriter’s powers to create a fluid, reverant but impeccably nuanced masterpiece of modern Country music. With Country, there’s always a certain distance you can travel from its core signifiers before it becomes other, a different strain of music adjascent to but not actually Country. Plains pay implicit homage to greats like Waylon Jennings, Reba McIntyre, Iris Dement, moving on up to more modern incarnations like The Judds or Lucinda Williams. While Plains strain at the restrictions, there’s still a true country blood running through their music, informed as it is by the poetic beauty of both writers’ craft.
Summer Sun rises above the Ozark mountains with brushed snares and lushly recorded acoustic guitars, the duo of Crutchfield and Williamson close harmonising like sisters who’ve grown up together. The tale is of a woman playing at being the good wife, on the verge of leaving, regaling the listener with the sadness of a failed relationship. The restlessness in the character’s heart is a theme that re-emerges throughout, though it surfaces in other characters, in the landscape, in the wired guitar solo on album single Problem With It. Here the duo hold down a grooving Country-Rock beat (think Roseanne Cash’s early 80s classic Seven Year Ache), the mood is again of the subjects departing, crossing state lines away from their problems, speeding away from broken hearts. In the video for the track there’s an exquisite moment when Crutchfield is singing, a slight snarl of the upper lip before the biting chorus line that summons up the mood of the group, it’s all there in that twitch. Minor chords wrestle with major, the two duet wonderfully. Line Of Sight follows with the country rock dynamic, classic chord changes last seen on a Tom Petty song underpinning the tale of tit-for-tat relationship breakdown under the summer moon in the mid-West.
The small details brought up throughout the album are pointlist details that build up Plains’ whole universe, borrowed from country legend and embelished ad nauseum with Crutchfield and Williamson’s descriptive lyrics. Decaying Carnations, melting candles in the dark heat of night, cigarettes stubbed out in plant pots, empty highways to nowhere and everywhere, it’s all there. They are details that shine small lights on the narratives that weave through out the record. On Hurricane, the restless character from Summer Sun (maybe?) has moments of self realisation, little glimpses in the mirror among the tumult of a chaotic mind, while in Bellafatima the waltz signature mourns like an Iris Dement weeper, the character’s eyes “sad like a cannon, they’ll blow you away, she’ll cross your mind like a cheap box of wine where each sip is like a track switching trains.” The poetry flows almost like Bob Dylan lyrics, similies spilling out into the landscape. The restlessness is tinged with sadness, excentuated by the tremolo-picked mandolins in the break.
On Last 2 On Earth, the singers are leaving again, romantically heading out into a new life, coming back from the dead like Thelma and Lousie breaking out of a stifling surbubia. There’s a pleasing lag in the vocalising that sits behind the beat, lurching into this uncertain future. No Record Of Wrong picks up the pace with a square-dancing rhythm for Plains to criss-cross harmonies with, echoed by some tasteful and smooth guitar playing. The feeling is live, magic happening in the studio, particularly with the vocals reaching up together hand in hand. It’s a great updating of the country rock formula, full of life and love. The title track and album closer waltzes into the distance on a cloud of piano and lap steel. To my mind it recalls Iris Dements’ My Life album, forlornly glowing with a candle-lit melancholy punctured by small moments of joy, lamented here in song. It’s a perfect closer that implores the listener to go back to the start of the record.
Every year there’s a record that gets played in the shop on the off-chance by someone and it slowly catches fire. Russell put this record on in the stereo and every time it was on I had to ask what it was until I bought it. Slowly other members of staff picked up on it and it’s now a firm shop favourite. This year’s Monorail sleeper hit, a postcard from a mythological, adverturous and heart-mending America that still exists somewhere, even if it’s just on this record for the 32 minutes its on.
Hitting play on the debut album from Plains, the duo composed of Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield and Jess Williamson, we’re immediately teleported into a world of Southern sunsets, wide open spaces, and the unapologetic nature of Country music.
Plains began out of Crutchfield’s and Williamson’s mutual love for each other’s music and after trading albums (Saint Cloud and Sorceress, respectively) in early 2020. Feeling that it was time to have a separate project that could reflect a different side of her creative inspirations, Katie felt that Jess was the perfect fit for a collaboration, and they set off to create I Walked With You A Ways.
Written between Kansas City, Los Angeles, and Marfa, the album was recorded in Durham, NC with collaborator and producer Brad Cook. The creative magic of only a few vocal takes, tracking with a band comprised of Spencer Tweedy and Phil Cook, gives the album a feel of fresh, on-the-spot conception. The trust and history of Crutchfield and Cook’s collaborations (Saint Cloud, Great Thunder EP) set the tone for this new container of spontaneity and experimentation.
And that’s the thing about Country music, and what so much of this album nods to – from Waylon and Willie, to The Judds, The Chicks, Trio, and beyond – these are groups that are formed out of family and friendship, that lyrically take their listeners on a voyage of sorrow and hope. Crutchfield’s sharp, honest edge of truth telling paired with Williamson’s ability to paint the scene with candles, plains, sunsets, and small Texas towns is one of the strongest parts of this album.
While Williamson sings \”Texas in my rearview / Plains in my heart\” and Crutchfield echoes \”Got a heartbreak burn, take the quickest route / On this 4 lane highway I’ll trace it in the clouds,\” the true gift of this album emerges. We’re in the backseat with these two, truck windows open, wide open spaces in front of us. The feeling of being both a mess and unstoppable at our fingertips. May this album bring us all closer to ourselves and to each other.
I Walked With You A Ways – Plains (Waxahatchee & Jess Williamson) is no longer in stock