Honesty isn’t usually a word immediately associated with modern music. Many acts, both indie and mainstream alike, are perfectly happy phoning in and looping phrases that might sound meaningful, but which really aren’t much more than loud, catchy filler designed to achieve maximum radio play.
This is not the case with Waxahatchee, who has delivered one of 2013’s best and most honest records in Cerulean Salt. It’s a brutally pure and unpretentious affair that quietly reaches out of the stereo and clings to whatever is human in each of us. Singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield – stage name Waxahatchee – delivers a collection of heartfelt tunes that demand, however subtly, to be heard.
Local readers might remember Crutchfield from Birmingham darlings P.S. Eliot and the Ackleys. Waxahatchee shares little sonically with these acts, but all the quality lyricism and unique song construction are still there, this time helmed by a more mature and worldly wise songstress.
Cerulean Salt does manage to harness the raw punk power of those bands despite a more minimal and flat tone. Sparse instrumentation, with many tracks composed only of a single guitar or drum/bass combo, usher Crutchfield’s stellar composition skills to the foreground. It’s composition poised to conjure a sound, perforated with a deadpan delivery reminiscent of the Pixies by way of early Rilo Kiley, that carries Crutchfield into a landscape all her own. If she chooses to continue down this path of musical and emotional growth, Cerulean Salt could be the first in a line of amazing albums.
After gaining a little national recognition last year with her debut American Weekend – supported by airplay from Sirius and NPR – it would appear that Crutchfield has been set up for success. But within Cerulean Salt, Crutchfield has grown bolder and seemingly more comfortable in her bare-bones sound. This confidence is immediately noticeable, lending even more power to the unassuming attitude lying just behind the rock.
While some tracks veer slightly off into grungy ‘90s pop or outlaw country, most of the disc is blissfully minimal post-punk. The choice of a more plugged-in sound over the minimal approach of her last effort infuses the album with an energy her earlier effort was lacking. It’s a vitality that helps to set Waxahatchee apart from almost any other singer-songwriter working today.
This isn’t to say that American Weekend wasn’t an unbelievable debut, and both albums certainly belong in any post-punk fan’s collection. But Cerulean Salt is so much more of a comfortable and listenable experience. You can hear Crutchfield starting to grab onto the bottom cusp of what could turn into a signature and instantly recognizable sound – a sound she should build a career on.
There’s also an intimacy to the record that simply cannot be faked or replicated. A party record this isn’t. Songs like “Tangled Envisioning” and “Blue Pt. II” conjure images of a lonely bedroom and a person dealing with life the best way she knows how: through the hum of a cheap guitar and a crackle of an old amplifier. It’s the unvarnished purity of the whole thing, and not the roaring distortion of “Waiting” or short running times, that solidifies Waxahatchee’s punk cred. It’s the same purity that has been at the heart of every great punk release since the late ‘70s.
Some of the sentimentality and emotional content that makes this album so great might seem heavy-handed or hackneyed in the hands of a lesser artist, but Waxahatchee makes all the pain feel so right. Listen after listen, new lines leap out in ways they hadn’t before. Subtle nuances in the instrumentation only become apparent after multiple listens. It’s a level of serene subtlety that seems almost lost in today’s musical landscape. Cerulean Salt is an album that isn’t so much “listened to in an afternoon,” but rather absorbed over the course of weeks.
With this much power – and a sound as raw as your nerves on a hungover Sunday morning – Cerulean Salt is some of the best girl-fronted rock I’ve heard since the Soviettes broke up. Fans of strong emotional songwriting, or those simply looking for a great record to ease the transition from winter to summer, owe it to themselves to check this one out.