Saturday, August 24, 2013

Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt (2013)

(Don Giovanni)


Gifted singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield is a throwback figure; this is the second album of music she's released under the name Waxahatchee that owes its aural texture (or lack thereof) and mode of writerly catharsis to the indie and alternative rock scenes of the '90s, mainstream and otherwise. Unlike a band like Yuck or Real Estate, Crutchfield's prime takeaway from the glut of individualistic rock records issued in the wake of grunge is their directness. She sees these feedback squalls and quick, dirty guitar compositions just as a means to say what she already must cause she got no choice. In this sense, she's also an artist who could never have existed twenty years ago, maybe even ten, because there's a real sense in which every millisecond of this recording comes down to her specific decisionmaking process and not a soul else's, which is all the better. This is bedroom pop, but it reaches so far beyond, and sounds considerably better than this kind of album once did.

Cerulean Salt successfully if tentatively bridges a stylistic preoccupation hailing back to Superchunk and L7 with the confessional intimacy of Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen. Her songs aren't quite there yet, frankly, especially when one is finally intrigued enough to check in for a close rundown of the lyric sheet only to find somewhat clumsily overstuffed stanzas like "Could you be extraordinary? / We're alone in this gaudy mess / In the house of slurred speech / Sharing gravity to suppress." I mean, that's not bad, but it's not as straight-on revelatory as the singing makes it sound. Crutchfield unmistakably has something interesting to say, she just hasn't quite formed it with the same verbal precision she affords her music. But that doesn't matter as much as you might think in music this closed-off and pointed, because she makes up the difference with nothing but sheer will. Though her guitar and vocals both, she elevates this material until it sounds as hard-hitting and wounded as she wants it to be. (Ronnie Spector did more than almost anyone with lyrics far weaker and certainly less personal than this, mind.)

The controlled chaos of Crutchfield's extremely focused performances here is refreshing, as is her brevity; this flies by with thirteen cuts in thirty-two minutes, about half of them excellent and the other half certainly agreeable. The record offers a handy antidote to something like the irony-overload of Best Coast or the tiresome monotony of Ariel Pink, or even John Darnielle's peculiar brilliance -- owing much more to a performer like Fiona Apple, whose emotional complexity resists any reduction that her aesthetic delights in musical theater and percussive busyness might commit, whose content vastly outpaces (in the opposite direction to Crutchfield) any surface-level concerns about production or "fidelity." Of course, replace musical theater with gritty guitars that seem to stream out from the age when Butch Vig ruled FM radio for a spell. The songs are the thing, still; Crutchfield's got a certain affected lethargy just like her talented punk rock peer Colleen Green, but it's just an element of her unmistakable honesty.

That voice also can attain an angelic fray, a yearning, or it can belt with a cruel snarl while her music beautifully festers, refusing to pick up and launch. Her songs tend to stop before you're done with them, and she knows her way around an urgent pop hook but isn't always willing to share (small wonder she's opened for Tegan & Sara, whose current record is the explosion of stratospheric pop bliss this one explicitly denies). As raw as the music is, as simple as the oozing plods of non-arrangement are, the primary feature is hypnosis -- without showing any obvious flair for drama, Crutchfield's every tic and move is fascinating and, on something like the bass-heavy vulnerability "Brother Bryan" -- which peaks with the moving mantra "I am not well" -- you're lucky enough to experience all sorts of pin-drop, goosebump moments, and I'd wager that impression is even stronger if you see her live.

As modern day punk records go, this is eclectic and consistently intriguing, but it does become a little redundant in the back half, which is slightly disappointing given how much of a range is exhibited on something like "Coast to Coast," which begins as a beaming toothpaste commercial and slowly grows unhinged -- there's untapped imagination in these cuts. But Waxahatchee's control over the breadth of this record has its advantages too; its minimalism allows the show-stopper "Peace and Quiet," one of the truly remarkable rock songs of 2013, to unload itself as heavy as it needs to after a lengthy slow burn. Crutchfield's still feeling out the implications of her power on record (and so are we!); I wouldn't be surprised if album number three turns out to be a jolt of power harder yet to shake. She's already tapping something that hurts here, in the best way.

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