New Music 11/2021 – Waxahatchee, Courtney Barnett

I caught up with one of the most critically acclaimed albums from 2020, plus something old and something new (and something blue) by one of my Aussie favourites.

Saint Cloud

I’ve never heard of Waxahatchee (the stage name of Alabama singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield) before last year, when her fifth studio album topped or near-topped quite a few Best of 2020 lists, and drew many comparisons with Bob Dylan at his peak. I can’t really be a good judge of the former, but I’m definitely enjoying the album, which embraces classic country-rock, folk and Americana while keeping a distinctly modern sound, as well as Crutchfield‘s tough-and-tender voice that puts her in a good company with artists like Loretta Lynn or Lucinda Williams.

A bit of research revealed that she made Saint Cloud after ditching alcohol, and that this album is her most radio-friendly release to date; even so there’s something quite sharp-edged and raw about it. I only wish I felt a bit more connection with her lyrics – though she’s clearly singing about intense, personal things I find them a tad too verbose and abstract to really click.

Things Take Time, Take Time / The Double EP: A Sea of Split Peas

For once I’m writing about an actual new release, rather than music that’s simply new to me. In between the lockdowns and the pandemic-induced stupor, I’ve mostly been playing a slow catch-up with my favourite artists, often many months after the actual new releases.

Courtney Barnett is shaping up to be one of the artists whose style I just fundamentally like, and whose records I’ll most likely keep on buying even without any drastic musical reinventions. I took to her charming deadpan singing-speaking vocal style, observational lyrics and jangly indie rock laden with deceptively modest guitar hooks straight away, and her latest third studio album feels like a catch-up with a good friend.

This contemplative record is Barnett at her most mellow and relaxed, and more sparse than her previous albums, with more reliance on a drum machine. Lyrically, Barnett had every reason to make a dark and bitter album after a dissolution of her long-term relationship and the forced standstill of Melbourne’s draconian restrictions that drove us all a tad crazy, but instead the songs reach out for positivity and healing. Some song titles like Take It Day By Day or Write A List Of Things To Look Forward To sound like they were ripped straight from some self-help book, but thankfully Barnett is too down-to-earth to actually write genuinely cringey self-help songs. While the album may not have the bite or energy of her earlier highlights, it’s a warm, intimate addition to an already impressive body of work.

I was also delighted to pick up the compilation of Barnett’s two earlier EPs, which first introduced her unique songwriting voice and a knack for turning mundane everyday scenarios into witty, articulate and gripping stories. It doesn’t have a cohesive feel or pacing of a proper album, but that’s hardly something to hold against a compilation. I already had the standouts History Eraser and Avant Gardener (hands down the best song about having a panic attack while attempting gardening ever written) as separate singles in my collection, but there are plenty of other gems to enjoy here. I look forward to hearing the new and old stuff at my first Courtney Barnett concert next March!

As an aside, speaking as a music dinosaur who’s still buying physical CDs, I really appreciate the effort and personal touch of the handwritten cover artwork and liner notes. They really make Barnett’s discography feel like one distinctive, cohesive set of work.

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