Waxahatchee – ‘Great Thunder’ review

Katie Crutchfield has such a vast body of work that, in returning to her early songs, she uncovers new worlds

Katie Crutchfield, aka Waxahatchee, certainly has an enviable volume of output for her mere 29 years. It dates all the way back to her first musical outing with twin sister Allison. Aged just 15, the pair released an earthy folk project under band name The Ackleys. Four studio albums followed in quick succession for Crutchfield, this time under her Waxahatchee pseudonym, as did a short-lived but notable project with Keith Spencer called ‘Great Thunder’. It’s this latter project that Crutchfield now returns to, unearthing six tracks and reimagining them via Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon’s isolated studio in Wisconsin.

Returning to old material is something Crutchfield has done adeptly previously; ‘Early Recordings’ from 2016 took her very first EP and gave it a timely reissue. Crutchfield’s output has been so voluminous over the years that an unwelcome side-effect has often been that excellent songs fall into obscurity as fans rush to discover her latest. Which leads us to ‘Great Thunder’. Her project with Spencer went largely unnoticed; now, songs once forgotten are given a welcome rebirth.

“I would say that it is a complete 180 from the last record: super stripped-down, quiet, and with me performing solo, it’s a throwback to how I started,” Crutchfield says of the project. Fans of last year’s critically acclaimed ‘Out in the Storm’ might find her latest a difficult transition, as crunching guitars and kinetic rock are replaced with soaring, stripped-back storytelling that leans towards the folk and country songs she wrote with her sister almost 15 years ago.

Setting, sound and situation become inseparable on the EP, with the secluded surroundings of Venon’s Wisconsin studio mirroring the emotional distance Crutchfield imagines between the central characters who make up her wistful song stories. Earthy, low-fi acoustic instrumentation blankets a record that eschews heavy production and editing in favour of evocative lyricism. Opener ‘Singer’s No Star’ gorgeous balladry sets the tone for a record that explores both real and imagined distances in relationships, both with ourselves and with others. It’s a theme which continues on the excellent ‘You’re Welcome’, as the singer imagines fantasy bridges between protagonists.

While ‘Singer’s No Star’ and ‘Chapel of Pines’ are closer in style to the originals Crutchfield and Spencer created, elsewhere songs bear little resemblance to their origins. ‘Takes So Much’, for example, is reimagined in such a way that where there was once delicacy and calm; now there is gut-wrenching, urgent emotion as stories of the destructive impact of distance intensify. Crutchfield’s vocals strain  with emotion against the stripped-back instrumentation here often, the result feels like this is one of her most personal musical intepertations to date.

Where there is a little more production, as on the infectious ‘Slow You Down’, it helps to bridge the worlds between ‘Out in the Storm’ and ‘Great Thunder’. As the penultimate song, it arrives at a welcome time, when the emotiveness of the EP’s early stages can sometimes overwhelm. This EP cements Crutchfield not only as an evocative songwriter and storyteller, but also as an artist who can re-imagine often, skilfully, breathing new life and meaning into songs that many will now struggle to forget.

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