Album Review: Plains – I Walked With You A Ways

The recent trend in the music industry for collaboration between women artists continues with this recently released Plains record, featuring Jess Williamson and Katie Crutchfield of Waxahatchee. When so much of an artist’s worth seems tied up in who they are and how they can sell themselves as individuals, there’s obviously something very appealing in working with different people and releasing music under a new name. Perhaps financial pressures also encourage women to team up, tour together and share the burden of press duties. In the old days you formed a band and then went solo, nowadays it’s the other way around.

Both of these artists have flirted with alt-country on their previous records, with Katie in particular referencing Lucinda Williams as her main influence on Saint Cloud as well as touring with the reigning king of the genre, Jason Isbell. Both Jess and Katie were brought up with country music and perhaps their indie rock background was an attempt to escape the music of their parents. Here they fully embrace that windswept, widescreen country/folk music tradition.

The album was released in autumn and has those kind of warm, golden hues even if does open with a song called Summer Sun. Musically the tone is bittersweet throughout, with many of the songs dealing with breakups and relationships fracturing under weight of expectations.

Each singer takes the lead on different songs, with the other offering harmony and backup rather than duets or shared vocals. Lead single ‘Problem With It’ is the most upbeat song on the record, even if the tone is quite confrontational. Musically it has that great indie Americana sound which the last Waxahatchee album so perfectly captured. Line of Sight is another lead song from Katie and has some gorgeous steel guitar. Hurricane is a good example of how Katie’s distinctive voice brings an edge to the lyrics (her punk background may be a distant memory but she retains something of the offbeat rebel in her vocal delivery).

My favourite song here is Abilene, with Jess taking on lead vocals. Her bittersweet, nostalgic voice would fit wonderfully in classic country music. Bellafatina is another standout, a great storytelling song. She conveys such stunning heartache in her voice throughout the title track and ‘No Record of Wrongs’.

Any of these songs could safely appear on either of the artists previous albums, which is a sign of the quality of this ‘side’ project. Strangely enough that is also where my tiny ‘problem with it’ stems from. I was expecting something distinct from their respective solo work, something more classic country or even 90s pop country considering they were talking about Dolly, Loretta, Dixie Chicks and Shania in their interviews. The album is still firmly and safely in the alternative indie Americana space. That’s not to say this isn’t a gorgeous collection of songs, because it is, but you wonder if there has been a slight missed opportunity here to take some risks and experiment further.

Really that’s a minor quibble and we should just be grateful to have this gift of extra new music from two excellent solo artists with much to say and a gorgeous way to sing it. Take a walk with Plains and be transported to some beautiful wide open spaces.

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