Defiant Restraint Tinged with Distortion: Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt

All is not always as it appears. When I first came across Waxahatchee, I did not expect the sound this band would create. (In full disclosure, I imagined anything in the spectrum from a sort of shamanistic psych rock folk band to an experimental electronic noise collective.) Little did I anticipate finding a forgotten corner of joy. Listening to Waxahatchee conjures a time and a place in the not too distant past emotionally and literally.

I tripped across the music of Waxahatchee when I heard a snippet of “Be Good” on a podcast having nothing to do with music. With a line like “you don’t want to be my boyfriend, I don’t want to be your girl, well that’s a relief” sung over a series of pleasantly content yet remorseful chords, I was musically smitten.  (To see what I am saying, listen to “Be Good” here or below.)  Waxahatchee is actually a musician by the name of Katie Crutchfield originally from Northern Alabama (see comment re Alabama below) who now resides in Philadelphia.

(Can I just take a second to acknowledge that Alabama is slowly becoming the indie-rock place to be from du jour like Louisiana in the late 90s or Georgia in the early 80s. Alabama Shakes, Phosphorescent and now Waxahatchee all came from or still live in the Yellowhammer State. It’s good because no state should ever be musically associated solely with Lynyrd Skynyrd.)

cerulean saltIn her second release as Waxahatchee, Cerulean Salt, Crutchfield turns up the intensity from last year’s American Weekend but doesn’t depart too far from her amazing ability to compose songs filled with pregnant restraint. Without getting too carried away, it is the musical equivalent of Hemingway’s ability to evoke a wealth of feeling with an economy of words, but in this case Crutchfield does it with the music (although the lyrics carry their own punch) reminiscent of Elliott Smith‘s early (and best) records Roman Candle, Elliott Smith, and either/or or early Cat Power. Like Smith’s and Marshall’s early songs, Crutchfield uses sparseness and space in a way that builds tension, anxiety, and intensity (both passionate and obsessive). Lodged in these seemingly “simple” tracks are haunting emotions betrayed (brilliantly) by the lyrics, spartan yet direct, like the furious resignation of “Misery Over Dispute” (“i whispered and walked on egg shells“), whose fuzzy-distortion firmly conveys the ambivalence contained within. Amidst the restrained delicacy there is a constant sense that something is about to burst as in “Dixie Cups and Jars” or “Peace and Quiet”, one of which teases while the other indulges but unexpectedly. Or, in the jarring transition from “Brother Bryan” to “Coast to Coast” – a warm poppy rock ballad replete with a chorus of dreamy “woo’s” – for a brief moment I thought I’d gone transcontinental. The effect is intentional, the dramatic, arresting shift, a perfect microcosm of how the tracks both between and within are filled with unexpected twists and turns. Like when Katie and company ditch the electric guitars and distortion and go acoustic on “Swan Dive” an ostensibly upbeat folk ballad recalling The Tallest Man on Earth (who in turn evokes Donovan, Nick Drake, and the love-lorn early Dylan). Cerulean Salt also has a decidedly “lo-fi” punk/80s indie aesthetic lingering in the background, which makes sense given Crutchfield’s previous bands, yet it is melded with an appreciation for melody reminiscent of Kim Deal‘s work on the Pixies and the Breeders or even Throwing Muses, see the shifts in “Lively”.

Katie and the members of Waxahatchee do that thing which is oh so rare in a record, constantly defying expectations yet succeeding at winning the listener with every unanticipated moment or note. Three months in and I think this record will be playing with great frequency in the months to come and further down.

For your own trip to a familiar yet foreign locale, listen here to Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt

…and if you are intrigued, go back to the first release American Weekend  or these early recording on their bandcamp site.

I have to admit I’m jealous of the folks in Austin who will get to see Katie and company perform in small, intimate venues at SXSW.  Oh well, I’ll be tuning in to NPR’s broadcast of their set on Wednesday, you should too, and hoping they pass through Chicago soon.


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