Album Review – Plains – “I Walked With You A Ways”

photo: Molly Matalon

What is country music? At its most elemental level, when two or more women conjoin voices in song, a marker of country music is placed, and a sisterhood is formed. This was ordained when the sisters of the The Carter Family set the very foundations of country music some 100 years ago. Here 100 years later, two women singing in close harmony still evokes that unparalleled and elemental feeling in the audience, just as it will continue to do 100 years from now. The sound and its appeal is incorruptible, and immortal.

Plains is a passion project in every sense of the word. Forged as a partnership between Katie Crutchfield of the indie group Waxahatchee, and solo artist and songwriter Jess Williamson, it came together through the pair’s shared passion for country music. Since these two women’s primary musical projects availed them few opportunities to express that country music passion, they collectively assembled ten original songs, and released an album with harmonies as eerily close as those of blood sisters, and as goosebump-inducing as any effort in this genre that you will find.

Though country music was the inspiration for this album—and along with these original songs, the pair has been performing classics like “Mammas Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” and “Goodbye Earl” in concert—I Walked With You a Ways renders more as traditional folk to the modern ear, not just because of the primeval aspect of the harmony singing, but also due to the instrumental approach that was taken by producer Brad Cook in Durham, NC where the album was recorded.

To be honest, you may wish for a little bit more from the music of this album itself. Along with not being especially “country” in the traditional sense, sometimes the accompaniment is downright elementary. This album could have been enhanced if the same imagination brought to the songs was paralleled by the instrumentation, and more effort was expended to separate the tracks from each other.

But that is your one fleeting concern, and honestly, your attention is so rapt upon the singing of Katie and Jess that the lack of expression in the arrangements is forgivable, if not advantageous. There is an intimacy here that layers of production could have potentially suffocated, along with a skill at harmony singing that needs little embellishment or backing, delivered so effortlessly and natural.

The “Plains” title for this pairing is apt, because the you feel the vastness of open space in this project, while the writing takes you on a journey. Bits of personal histories are revealed, places in the past are reflected upon, and little plans for a more favorable future are hatched. Never has the town of Abilene been more encapsulated in song, at least not since George Hamilton IV. And they’re not too proud to let a love song or two float in.

As enrapturing as the writing is, even more enrapturing is the way this pair writes in a way that facilitates the joining of their two voices. Katie Crutchfield and Jess Williamson were born to sing with each other, with their individual inflections, strengths, and failings all aligning in a harmonious bliss that would be felonious not to explore and share. Thank goodness fate set these two women in collaboration.

I Walked With You a Ways may be too folky for some, and others may be more enamored with twangy guitars and half time beats, and find something like this a little too sleepy. But for those who salivate for these kinds of harmony pairings, there isn’t much better. Plains lives up to the promise and the hype.

8/10

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