Last year Anna St. Louis released a tape of striking, hushed songs on Woodsist’s small Mare imprint. They hinted at an accomplished songwriting talent and showcased St. Louis’ honeyed drawl, but the tape’s warm emersion in hiss and sunny afternoon vibes didn’t mark it as the kind of release that wrestled for constant attention. So, when her debut proper showed up in the inbox a few months back, I wasn’t quite prepared for the sucker punch to the gut it had in store. If Only There Was A River unfolds like a seasoned country-folk record, feeling classic and eternal like the kind of release that’s canon before it ever hits the shelves. It has an ache in its bones that’s raw and real, but St. Louis has wrapped the record in a lush warmth of an heirloom sweater pulled tight against the chill rolling across the plains. She’s teamed up with Kevin Morby and King Tuff’s Kyle Thomas to work the record into a bittersweet brilliance, gathering grey skies and painted sunset hues to color the spare, yet effective ambience around her tales of heartbreak and woe.
Most of the songs on If Only There Was A River have the kind of deep mournfulness and effortless age that seem like they might underscore a key scene in a Cohen brothers film. Her songs feel universal, timeless and torn in the way the catalogs of Townes Van Zandt, Guy Clark and Wanda Jackson often do. She’s most like Van Zandt, though, in her use of simple country cool paired with a just enough orchestration that a song feels gilded, but not so much that it feels gaudy. Van Zandt often chafed in this context. The production hung on him a bit loose, like a borrowed suit, but St. Louis is able to work the same juxtaposition to her advantage. She’s the kind that can walk into any vintage store and not only find something that fits well, but make it her own, casting out the ghosts of previous owners on her way out the door.
The album lends itself to multiple listens, touching different heartstrings each time it winds its way around the turntable. St. Louis’ vocals move from whisper to wrench over the course of the record. She’s a master of producing the pang that grips the guts and chokes back tears for undeserving lost loves. While the touchstones of the past cling to the edges of the record, it doesn’t feel like its looking back. She’s earning a place among albums that transcend eras and in that regard she’s positioning herself to stand alongside fellow L.A. troubadour Jenny Lewis as the kind of songwriter who is comfortable in her heartbreak and carving out a sound that eventually belongs only to her. This release is a large step in that direction and a highlight among 2018’s already stellar showing for music. With the arrival of If Only There Was A River it feels like St. Louis has gained a longstanding place among the artists that scar our souls over time.
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