Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt – review


"I look like I got my way/ But truly, I left with nothing at all," begins this flannel-clad break-up album, one that peers out from behind a Native American place name (Alabama's Waxahatchee Creek) and teases with a title that sends you scurrying for the dictionary (it means sky blue).

The voice singing is girlish and American, the electric guitar work is basic but confident; there are no drums, or bass until later. But this combination of musical innocence and lyrical experience draws you in, curious as to how someone who sounds barely into their teens could grasp such a great deal about human affairs.

There are 12 more songs like it on Waxahatchee's second album, ranging in length from 1:43 (the all-too-brief buzzsaw pop of Waiting) to the relatively mammoth 3:38 of the stand-out Dixie Cups and Jars. This hypnotic cut describes an ill-starred wedding in which the guests drink from alternative tableware when the "poorly engineered" champagne flutes fail – foreshadowing, perhaps, the union itself. "We run like hell/ I'll write a tragic epilogue/ And you'll act it out," pronounces Katie Crutchfield, the woman behind Waxahatchee.

At 24, the Alabaman (now based in Philadelphia) is the veteran of multiple melodic lo-fi, DIY, punky, folkish outfits who remained resolutely below the radar, like Bad Banana and PS Eliot, which she shared with her twin sister Allison until relatively recently. The Ackleys were active when the sisters were 17.

The previous Waxahatchee record, American Weekend, found Crutchfield holed up in a cabin at the creek, reflecting in the company of an acoustic guitar. This time around, Crutchfield's loosely autobiographical vignettes and gnomic aperçus are all coated in the burnt sugar of 1990s alt-pop; melodically inclined, grungily produced. Like salted caramel, they become seriously moreish, once you lock into Crutchfield's delivery, which is more sophisticated than it first appears. The guitar and drums on Misery Over Dispute growl and thwack, but Crutchfiled's intricate vocal melody swoops over them. Moments of high drama are recounted as asides.

This record has a straight-up summer single in Coast to Coast, but the song's blithe bent masks the fact that there's "blood on the back seat" of the van, and that Coast to Coast is a phone-in show on the AM dial in which the paranormal alternates with conspiracy theory.

Reading on mobile? Watch Coast to Coast here

Having gone electric, Waxahatchee now shares a fair amount of musical ground with Bethany Cosentino's Best Coast. But jump back a couple of generations, and the voice of the Breeders' Kim Deal is her nearest analogue; her takes on human relations also recall Liz Phair, the bittersweet bubblegum of Juliana Hatfield and Tanya Donelly's Belly. With hindsight, the 90s now seem like some distant golden age in which women regularly played guitar, with riot grrrls agitating at the awkward end, Garbage filling stadiums at the other, and a well-populated middle ground. Twenty-plus years on, there are minor but persistent grunge and shoegaze revivals afoot; tangentially, these seem to point up a net loss in the numbers of females in non-pop, non-soul roles.

The addressee of You're Damaged, the acoustic album-closer, is 11 in 1997, so this is too big a polemic to lay on the shoulders of Waxahatchee. Crutchfield is a prolific and engaging writer doing her own thing, poised between the navel-gazing of the confessional girl-with-guitar, and the if-you-bash-it-out, they-will-jump-around school of DIY tune-making. It is enough that she has made this seemingly slight, unassuming record; one that sounds just a little more epic with every play.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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