Coincidentally born on the exact same day in 1989 as this humble critic and with the identical twin attribute, it’s easy to grow a curious connection to the music of the songwriter’s songwriter Katie Crutchfield a.k.a Waxahatchee. Yet long dedicated followers of her craft spanning 12 years, including a stint in the band P.S Eliot and her three solo albums, have always felt this personal chemistry. Deeply honest and emotionally intricate poetry performed exclusively with an acoustic guitar and presented in a simplistic package of minimal chords and ultra analogue sound quality provoked this reaction towards debut American Weekend.
Heart-wrenching and relatable quotes about ailing relatives: “Your breaths are short and urgent and it is unsettling” (“Rose, 1956”), platonic relationships: “It’s unclear now what we intend. We’re alone in our world” (“Be Good”) and the presumption of unrequited love: “I want you so bad it’s devouring me…but you’ll never found out” (“I Think I Love You”) were so powerfully poignant, philosophical and truthful that they could have their own individual framed posters.
As a matter of fact the intimate DIY aura, its fragile low self-esteem and the achy imperfection of her vocals made it largely reminiscent of Stina Nordenstam’s And She Closed Her Eyes. You could say that both introspective artists have had their share of misunderstandings, the particular irritable problem circulating Crutchfield’s mind being the crowd reaction to some of her live shows. Although she hasn’t become an unlocatable recluse like Nordenstam, she can be seen in a desolate forest in the cover for her third album Ivy Tripp.
Sophomore release Cerulean Salt ditched the melodic mono mood in favour of fuzzy stereophonic electricity with more bite that points in the vicinity of the punk rock scene that she once belonged to, the exceptions being “Brother Bryan” and “Tangled Envisioning”, which had the acoustic intimacy of American Weekend. Like that album this still carried her theme of sadness and depression (including the alcoholism–tinted “Swan Dive”), her short-length tracks and complex riddling lyrics containing quasi-portmanteau that made her the Shakespeare of alternative music. They could be read like tragic plays of impending doom and unless you studied English like Crutchfield, you may need Google to assist you in their definitions. Admittedly, both albums lack diversity in the composition which has been explored in her latest diary.
Ivy Tripp is Waxahatchee’s first album on the label Merge Records, which is home to Arcade Fire and Caribou and this could be a rationale for a more expansive, freer and accessible sound – ‘accessible’ in the most congratulatory manner I might add. “Air” displays very clear and confident vocals away from Stina Nordenstam and Emily Haines comparisons into Alanis Morisette, Avril Lavigne, Laura Marling and PJ Harvey territory, that range in pitch and enthusiasm and emphasize the humming found on “Peace and Quiet”, “Swan Dive” and “Coast to Coast”. It also welcomes one note synth blasts into the new production. What’s also noteworthy is that it inhibits a complete verse-chorus structure, rarely found in Waxahatchee albums.
Although her gloomy self-deprecation remains: “When I am gone at least I won’t be thinking“. Yet there is a lot more ambiguity when it comes to the context of the lyrics. Whether they relate to relationships, reaction to society/media or a fictional protagonist isn’t as clear. Take for instance, “< (Less than)” which could be interpreted as a belittling reflection of herself surprised by the overwhelming and seemingly un-entitlement to fame: “I woke up. I brush my hair. There’s not much there / You are less than me and I am nothing“. Whilst the insecure and flawed outlook that plagues her musical personality is on “Breathless“, which could be a reaction to the “sweet” reputation from the media: “I’m not trying to be a rose, you see me how I wish I was but I’m trying not to be seen“.
The backbone of the album is post-grunge and an appreciation for that 90’s scene can be viewed in the off-colour homemade MTV-graphics of “Under A Rock“. “Poison” has a dirtier and energetic punk edge and “< (Less Than)" is tortoise-paced with math rock outburst. "Dirt” and “Grey Hair” is a delightful collaboration of electric and acoustic guitars and would be radio friendly if extended longer. In particular, the latter which has a cute and friendly keyboard hook.
Katie Crutchfield is the head of a thriving DIY scene of her adopted home of Philadelphia, she just left a DIY label Don Giovanni and was educated as a youth in the DIY space Cave9, so it’s not surprising that she recorded “Summer Of Love” outside with a microphone and an acoustic guitar and a barking dog present. “Bonfire” also contains Asian speech from a TV set before a threatening and dramatic wall-of-noise intro that would have been a suitable substitute to begin the album, although the intense organ steps, warm vocal guidance, wailing guitar and static air in opener “Breathless” are sufficient and praiseworthy enough.
Praise must be rewarded to Crutchfield for keeping several characteristics whilst evolving her sound with variety but there’s always that lingering “what if?” thought and wish for another American Weekend. Fortunately, Waxahatchee has aleady hinted at a return to that style for the fourth album and with her sister Allison Crutchfield’s debut (produced by sister Katie) in the pipeline, there’s much to anticipate from the Crutchfield camp. Waxahatchee’s Ivy Tripp is out now on Merge Records, purchase it here.
Words by Matt Hobbs