I said it in my review of “blood” and I’ll say it again: It’s about time we got a new Kaitlin Butts record. And if you’ve been even remotely invested in the Red Dirt and Texas country scenes of the past few years, you likely know who Butts is – either as an artist who released a terrific debut album in 2015 but has only released a few scattered singles since, or as the artist who sang alongside husband Cleto Cordero on “A Life Where We Work Out” for his Flatland Cavalry outfit, which one could argue provided a breakthrough point for both acts.
Granted, there are some caveats with her latest album, in that those scattered singles released in the last few years aren’t featured on it, and that it’s framed more as a concept record, trimmed down to just seven songs. I walked into this album with two minds. On one hand, though it’s hard to outright prove, I don’t think this wave of releasing shorter projects or standalone singles is healthy for sustaining long-term artistic growth or attention, even if it works in the short-term world we inhabit today. But I also understand artists who want to stick to their artistic vision. At the very least, it’s seven songs from Butts that we didn’t have before, especially when lead single “blood” was, again, an absolutely excellent introduction to it all.
And though I do have my slight quibbles relating back to that release execution, I was caught off guard by what else can she do? in a big way, because despite its length, it’s one of the best country albums I’ve heard thus far this year. And even if it has been a very long time coming, it’s worth every second of the wait.
Of course, before diving into the more specific elements of this album, we need to address the concept at large, in that this is an album framed around everyday women and issues relating directly to them, from abusive relationships, small town gossip, and addiction, among other things. And it’s not so much issues that could only be specific to them as it is their response to their issues, as well as how others respond to them through them. It’s why I want to address the writing right off the bat, because while one could argue Butts paints in slightly broad strokes in framing certain situations that have been common in country music for decades – like alcoholic spouses and the women driven to kill said alcoholic spouses – she never shies away from the darker realities of what could cause or come from those situations, nor does she always frame her characters’ decisions as being the right ones.
Sure, the album starts off with“it won’t always be this way,” a song about a woman trying to hang on for dear life and escape with her child away from an abusive partner, which she eventually does. But it’s never presented as easy, and even later on through the title track, we witness a scenario of a woman who escaped a harsh past with a similar-sounding situation and is now caught in a dead-end job, forced to endure small town gossip of her being a single working woman just barely getting by and not finding that truly happy ending she thought she’d find. And yeah, let’s not pretend like society doesn’t judge women specifically harsher than men for making those needed rash decisions and living independently despite the individual background elements at play.
Like I said earlier, though, the album isn’t mining for sympathy so much as sketching unfortunate realities, and I love that it’s always centered more around the hands dealt to these characters more than their own actions taken. Take the character in “bored if I don’t,” for example, who thought she had to live that small town fantasy of getting married too quickly and now finds her life empty at such a young age, where even though there’s nothing inherently wrong with her partner, she’s sullen enough to cheat, and you almost understand why anyway. I’m not quite so wild about how “she’s using” employs the ‘90s country strategy of flipping the hook to have multiple meanings – especially when it’s a bit too on-the-nose and doesn’t cut as deep as songs in this vein typically do – but I do like that Butts, even if she acts as something of an outside observer here, sees this addict as a good person tempted by vices rather than an inherently doomed failure like everyone else seems to here.
And that’s probably the one track here to find a happy ending, because this album is never meant to be pretty. I already addressed the fantastic smoldering slow burn of “blood” before, but I also love how she flips the country classic “Jackson” around to show the couple that had a falling out before they could get married in a fever. If anything, it’s why I understand that past singles of hers like “How Lucky Am I” or “Marfa Lights” wouldn’t have worked here. They’re personal, straightforward love songs, and even though I could argue they might have provided something of a counterbalance here, the album probably wouldn’t have worked as well as a whole. Although, length is still an issue, especially when “White River” could have come right before “in the pines” and provided a nice build-up to the tension displayed on the latter track.
Honestly, however, aside from that and maybe that awkward vocal clipping at the beginning of “it won’t always be this way,” that’s about where my criticisms and nitpicks end, because, in addition to being excellently framed and presented, this album has the swell needed in its instrumentation and production to match it. Part of the credit has to go to Oran Thorton, known mostly for his work with Angaleena Presley, and those familiar with her name should understand why this album carries as much simultaneous weight and firepower as it does, especially seeing as how she helped co-pen “blood.”
The thing is, it’s all still clean enough to present itself as an accessible listen, but there’s still fantastic moments worth highlighting regardless, like the lumbering, smoked-out intensity of “it won’t always be this way” and that dread of wondering just how the story will end, or the drawn-out misery of “jackson” and “blood.” Even if “bored if I don’t” and the title track are played as more straightforward neotraditional cuts, there’s something to be said for how the slower pace is reflective of the quaint mundanity both characters find themselves living with in their respective situations. But if I’m going to discuss a track really worth highlighting in this regard, it’s her rendition of “in the pines,” which, between its lumbering pace, hazy atmospherics, and Butts’ slower delivery, is presented as something of an update to the southern-gothic tradition in country music. Yeah, it’s a murder ballad, but it’s more of a ghost story where the details are scattered and listeners are left to piece their own version of the puzzle together, which fits perfectly here, given that the song never explicitly outright spells out just how this man’s accident was caused or if his wife’s haunted sympathy is fake or just the delusion of how far she got pushed to the edge. And it doesn’t really matter, because it’s awesome.
In other words, it’s a fantastic ending to an album that, even despite its shorter runtime, feels surprisingly complete all around and doesn’t waste a moment, even if I do, again, think “White River” would have worked perfectly here and still fit within the general concept. But one has to judge strictly what is presented to them, and even in that regard, what else can she do? delivers on all counts.
- Favorite tracks: “it won’t always be this way,” “bored if I don’t,” “what else can she do?,” “jackson,” “blood,” “in the pines”
- Least favorite track: “she’s using” (and even that’s damn good)
- Favorite individual moment: The key change on “jackson,” because we need to bring back the key change.