Katie Crutchfield is a natural writer of hyper-personal, heart-wrenching songs. Since picking up guitar as a teenager, with an assortment of melodic punk bands and solo songwriting projects, she’s demonstrated a gift for eloquently articulating the sorts of complex emotions that typically seem too confusing for words. Last year, Crutchfield released her debut full-length album under the moniker Waxahatchee, American Weekend, with the venerable punk label Don Giovanni. Recorded over the course of a week while snowed in at her Birmingham, Alabama childhood home, its lo-fi acoustic guitar-pop songs made for one of the year’s best records, an unsung collection of minimal punk poetry mediating on the highs and lows of 20-something life with both angst and grace. It was a raw but sweet-sung record, with dark and jaded lyricism about miscommunication and transience. “I don’t care if I’m too young to be unhappy,” she sang on “Grass Stain”. “Take my word for it, I’m not worth it,” started “Bathtub.” “I ignored you all night, and you don’t deserve it.”
Releasing her debut with Don Giovanni was an apt fit for Crutchfield, who has spent the better part of her young adult life traveling the country to play basement shows for feminist punks with bands like P.S. Eliot, Bad Banana and The Ackleys, all of which she sang for. (Those transient experiences touring the DIY show-circuit as a teenager tend to permeate her lyricism, too.) Crutchfield and her twin sister Allison started these bands in high school, inspired by touring bands that would pass through Alabama, as well as a local community-run show space called Cave 9 where they both volunteered. The sisters were best know as P.S. Eliot, a band that developed a cultish underground following until disbanding in 2011. To fans of these higher-energy bands of years past, the minimal poetry of American Weekend sounded like a departure aesthetically, but the pathos and ethos were all on point.
This year, Waxahatchee released a sophomore follow-up, Cerulean Salt, also via Don Giovanni. On her first album, Crutchfield delved into relationships and break ups; Cerulean instead is more amped-up with electric guitar and a full band, marked by images of childhood and Alabama, people who come in and out of your life, relationships that evolve and devolve, and the general loss of innocence and honesty that comes with growing up. Recorded from September to November of 2012 in her house in Philly, Crutchfield produced these songs about her past with help from the people who characterize her present. Cerulean was recorded with assistance from her roommates: her drummer Keith Spencer and bassist Sam Cook-Parrot, as well as her sister Allison Crutchfield (of Swearin’) and Kyle Gilbride (of Swearin’, Big Soda).
“I left like I got my way / But truly I left with nothing at all,” sings Crutchfield on the sparse, gripping opening track, “Hollow Bedroom”, just her defiant voice and electric guitar. In ways it sounds as minimal as American from the start, but without the lo-fi hiss her voice naturally exudes even more confidence. “When I saw you the next day / I knew they’d hear our breath through these walls,” she continues. The tighter, more expansive production makes Crutchfield’s songs cut harder, as the album shifts from snapshots of old friends, to skepticisms about loveless marriage and regret, to reflections on childhood that are too dismal to seem nostalgic. “My sister’s eyes flood like rivers or wine in your absence,” she sings on “Brother Bryan”, a blunt, stripped-down guitar-less waltz, where Crutchfield’s lyrics are heavy and full of emotion over just stark, echo-ing drums and bass. “You can’t hold up a story so heavy . . . we tell it so rarely,” she continues. Said sister appears on the album for guest vocals on “Blue Pt. II,” where Allison joins her on vox to harmonize on floating lines that pierce: “And when I look into your olive-colored eyes / I feel a breach it makes me cry.” “Coast to Coast” is the album’s most immediate earworm, a poppy 90s-inspired indie rock hit with fleshed-out guitar leads and a huge hook chorus: “You scan the AM for ‘Coast to Coast’,” she sings. “And I’ll try to embrace the lows.”
The songs get sadder as the album progresses, which for Crutchfield – who feels most at ease when her songwriting stays sad – also means they also get better. “Swan Dive” is understated gem tucked near the end of the album with some of the darkest but most poignant poetry here: “We will find a way to be lonely any chance we get,” she sings with a vocal infliction that sounds simultaneously tired and inspired. “And I’ll keep having dreams about loveless marriage and regret.” The closing track, “You’re Damaged,” is perhaps her most affecting song to date, a reflection on the sorts of crippled old friendships from childhood that change with age: “My gallant father, vomit and water / we’re not alone here, we invent our own fear,” Crutchfield sings slow and tempered over acoustic guitar. “Separately we will seek / chaos, condolence, defeat.”
Cerulean feels like an instant classic from the start, its songs in line with the introspective poetry of early Cat Power or Elliott Smith or Rilo Kiley. And following its March 2013 release in the U.S., it’s been received as such. In only three months that have passed, 2013 has already been a whirlwind of a year for Waxahatchee, starting with a winter tour where Crutchfield played intimate basement and living room shows throughout in New England, to an enthusiastically received string of shows at SXSW where her sets at times felt like photo shoots for the national music press. While American Weekend was an album cherished mostly amongst the grassroots communities she’s been involved with since high school — plus a handful of tuned-in music writers — Cerulean was met with immediate critical acclaim, earning “Best New Music” from Pitchfork as well as the “SPIN Essentials” tag and continued support from NPR, amongst other national music media. On her current tour, Crutchfield is playing with a bassist and drummer, amping up tracks from American Weekend into full-band affairs – a set that will likely be brought over to Europe sooner than later, following the UK release of Cerulean Salt on Witchita later this month.