Blue Cactus's tagline, "one prick, and you're stuck," feels like cheesy country kitsch. But it's fitting for the duo, whose new-meets-old country blend will beckon the listener back again. Steph Stewart and Mario Arnez, operating as Blue Cactus, fully embody the love and heartbreak of honky-tonk without completely abandoning their Americana roots on their debut.
Blue Cactus is filled with sweeping ballads that depict the trials and tribulations of relationships, infusing classic country with an acutely personal sensibility and modern instrumentation. The album stems from the winding down of two significant relationships—the duo's previous string-band endeavor, Steph Stewart and the Boyfriends, and Stewart's marriage—and the beginning of another (Stewart and Arnez are also partners).
The album begins with a few upbeat ditties before shifting to longer, softer ballads. Delicate drums, electric guitar, fiddle, and more layer upon one another throughout, and each track seamlessly flows into the next. "So Right (You Got Left)" becomes an easy sing-along as Stewart's sweet Southern accent bounces alongside easygoing instrumentation.
Even through a set of speakers, Stewart and Arnez's dynamic chemistry is delightfully apparent. They trade off the responsibility of lead vocals and harmonizing, their voices weaving together with the ease of natural conversation from track to track. But tucked between the discourse, two instrumental tracks shift the scene from last call at a country bar to the subsequent loneliness of a distant, empty home—literally or figuratively.
Elsewhere, that emptiness becomes increasingly palpable. "You put all our pictures in the closet/All my clothes in a suitcase by the door," Stewart croons on "Forever (Never Happened For Me)" over a weepy guitar, and "Not Alone ('Til You Come Home)" hits even harder. Stewart's strong voice and her striking lyrics cut deep, while delicate instrumentation and Arnez's haunting harmonizing only add to the song's intense emotional pull.
At its root, Blue Cactus speaks to a sense of collective heartache, but one that isn't permanent. On the album's closing track, Stewart sings, "Cause the present that's happened/Just became the past." Blue Cactus sings of a brokenness that also inspires, in songs that imagine the bright days that lie ahead.