Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt

Some weeks, a simple and clear choice for Album Of The Week presents itself, and I don’t have to spend all week racking my brains over who should get this entirely arbitrary distinction. That doesn’t happen too often, though. Sometimes, I don’t immediately love any of the obvious options, so I have to dig into whatever weird metal and country and pop albums are coming out that week until something catches my ear. And some weeks, there are way, way too many great albums coming out, and picking one feels like an indirect disrespect to all the stuff I didn’t pick. This is one of those weeks. This week is stacked. The Men’s New Moon is exceedingly satisfying fuzz-rock with hints of country and classic rock, and it shows just how far this band has come toward being one of the world’s finest punked-up roadhouse bands. Rhye’s debut Woman is mysterious, luxuriant bedroom pop that you can fall into like a silk-draped bed in a hotel you can’t afford. Youth Lagoon’s Wondrous Bughouse turns the triumphantly inward-looking homemade indie rock of Trevor Powers’s debut into wriggling Elephant 6 brainmelt psych-pop, expanding his vision without losing the wide-eyed sweep at its core. The long-awaited How to destroy angels_ debut album Welcome oblivion sounds like a computer dying, prettily. All of them are worth your time, your attention, and maybe your money, and I wish I had a chance to write at length about any of them. But I don’t, because Katie Crutchfield came through with an album that just kicks me in the gut that much harder, and that much more pleasurably, every time I hear it.

Crutchfield and her twin sister Allison used to lead P.S. Eliot, an Alabama warehouse-punk band that evidently was not enough to contain both siblings’ talent. Nor, it turns out, was the state of Alabama. Both of them moved to Philadephia, and Allison now leads the estimable fired-up indie-pop band Swearin’. Last year, Katie, recording as Waxahatchee, released American Weekend, a mostly-acoustic album of songs about scraped-out feelings and nights lost to oblivion. It was exactly the sort of album that flies under the radar at first but gradually captures more and more hearts as its clear-eyed vision and its fearless levels of self-disclosure. Cerulean Salt, the follow-up, isn’t quite as raw as American Weekend, but it’s sonically sharper and cleaner, and even though it only features a handful of musicians, it feels like a big musical leap. It’s an album of simple songs that linger around in your soul and refuse to fade into the background, and I’m vaguely amazed that a new album like that can exist in 2013.

Cleaning the house last night, my wife and I spent maybe half an hour trying to figure out who Crutchfield’s voice reminds us of. She settled on Sarah Dougher, the Portland singer-songwriter who was in Cadallaca with Corin Tucker. My pick was Elizabeth Elmore, the singer for the Illinois band Sarge, who broke up her band when she went to law school and whose best song was about a girl who burned down the frat house where she’d been raped. Neither one is quite right, but both get at something important about Waxahatchee’s appeal. These were two largely forgotten artists, products of the late-’90s period when women raised on riot grrrl let that spirit animate them as they moved into other realms. Both Dougher and Elmore made music that meant a lot to us. I don’t know whether Crutchfield will eventually fade from the institutional shared indie rock memory the way those two did; I sure hope she doesn’t. But there’s something similar in her voice — a clipped conversational matter-of-factness that suddenly becomes naked power whenever she needs it to. And on Cerulean Salt, her melodies are simple, straightforward ’90s-style indie-punk comfort food, expertly executed, the craft and feeling complementing each other rather than pulling in opposite directions.

Most of the songs on Cerulean Salt are about being drunk and desperate and young, but not that young. Opener “Hollow Bedroom” is, as far as I can tell, about realizing awkwardly that your housemates can hear you when you’re hooking up, then ultimately realizing that you don’t care. “Blue Part 2″ is about falling in love and realizing that the way you’re living isn’t working for you: “We’ll wake up sober two weeks later and we’re loving / The atmosphere is fucking tired, it brings us nothing.” On “Misery Over Dispute,” Crutchfield seems to realize that she’s avoided confrontation so much that she’s resigned herself to an unhappy relationship: “I whispered and walked on eggshells just to choose misery over dispute.” This is heavy, intense stuff, but Crutchfield isn’t moaning it out like Cat Power; she’s speaking in straight-ahead, clipped couplets, talking about rough circumstances as if she was ordering dinner. And in the fearsome catchiness of the music, you can hear plenty of joy amid all this emotional squalor.

Cerulean Salt, it should be noted, is just an extremely well put-together album. The plaintive acoustic vulnerability of “Brother Bryan” fades right into the buoyant pop-punk blast of “Coast To Coast,” and it gets me every time. The strums on “Tangled Envisioning” feel like heartbeats. Elegiac guitar-fuzz on “Lively” reminds me of early Low, while the ramshackle pound of the faster songs recalls Superchunk. And “You’re Damaged,” the last song on the album, is a spare but heart-crushing acoustic song that just absolutely kills me. I haven’t been able to go more than a couple of waking hours without listening to it since the first time I heard it. It’s the sort of song where I just want to crawl inside it and live there. I bring plenty of my own history and baggage to an album like this, and I don’t know how many people will just fall apart upon hearing it the way I do. But Cerulean Salt is far and away my favorite album of 2013 thus far. It sticks to my soul. It might stick to yours, too.

Cerulean Salt is out now on Don Giovanni. Stream it here.

Other albums of note out this week:

Welcome oblivion, the darkly and expertly atmospheric debut album from How to destroy angels_.
• The Men’s scuzzy and tough but melodically generous New Moon.
• Rhye’s sexily elegant Woman.
• Youth Lagoon’s kaleidoscopic, inventive, freaked-out Wondrous Bughouse.
• The clammy and clangorous self-titled debut from Thurston Moore’s Chelsea Light Moving.
• Javelin’s studio-happy, sample-eschewing Hi Beams.
• Young Dreams gorgeously expansive, extremely Scandinavian Between Places.
• Autechre’s abstract IDM marathon Exai.
• They Might Be Giants’ reliably culty Nanobots.
• Blanche Blanche Blanche’s futuristic, off-kilter Wooden Ball.
• Psychic Twin’s layered and synthy Strangers.
• Beliefs’ bleary shoegaze effort UNTITLED.

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Comments (33)
  1. ST 2 Lettaz also released his first solo album today, though I haven’t been able to listen to it yet.

  2. It’s been awhile since I’ve fallen for a musician as thoroughly as I have for Waxahatchee.

  3. Swan Dive, Dixie Cups and Jars, and Misery Over Dispute are my favorites but the whole album is awesome. Anyone who is a fan of Waxahatchee should check out Hop Along and Torres, both released great albums in the last year.

  4. PS Eliot members can do no wrong. Unsurprising that this album is brilliant.

  5. I agree that this is a pretty good album, but I’m not seeing the same connection between Waxahatchee and the past artists Tom mentions. It’s late ’90s indie-emo to me a la Rainer Maria and not so much riot grrl, but Rainer Maria isn’t a trendy buzz name drop at the moment so screw Rainer Maria, right? Not really. So I wrote about Waxahatchee’s Cerulean Salt and how indebted with late ’90s indie-emo her work is alongside the weirdness of how tastemakers are trying to pretend there wasn’t an entire underground scene just like this 15 years ago that many sites like Pitchfork panned on the regular, because I knew no one else really would say it. Just an alternate point of view, with the same end conclusion.

    • I enjoyed that write up. Yeah, you can draw a pretty straight line from those 90s indie-emo bands to Waxahatchee. Pitchfork got their start denouncing anything sonically similar to those artists on Vagrant and Jade Tree that you mentioned, and now it’s suddenly cool.

      I think Waxahatchee’s fan base would never deny the connection to 90s indie-emo. I remember first finding P.S. Eliot some years ago on ifyoumakeit.com and a lot of the bands on there never left the late 90s/early 00s. If you go there now, one of their most recent live videos is Braid from last summer playing a 13-year-old song. So I think Kate Crutchfield is emerging from a scene that has no qualms about the idea they’re carrying a torch from bands like Jawbreaker and Sunny Day Real Estate, but a lot of the taste-making music journalists are taking her out of context, and perhaps finding her new album to be more sonically novel than it really is….like you said. That said, I think the album is great.

      I think a lot of that has to do with timing. Pitchfork emerged while Hot Topic scenester emo pop punk bubblegum shit was still on its way up, so I think they panned anything and everything that remotely resembled Hot Topic scenester emo pop punk bubblegum shit, even the good stuff. Now that those Hot Topic scenester emo pop punk bubblegum shit days are comfortably behind us, and while it seems like the most popular instruments in indie rock at the moment are the synthesizer and the laptop, there might be a significant space for late-90s/early-00s throwback-ish bands like Waxahatchee to exist. I think it’s why we’re seeing an occasional DIY punk band pop up on indie blogs, as if the DIY punk band is a new thing.

      • Man, fucking HTSEPPBS, I

      • II couldn’t have said it any better, Nate dogg!

      • Do you guys think this is an isolated case, or do you think there is a scene/genre that’s getting panned right now for the wrong reasons?

        • I’ve been occasionally campaigning for Laura Stevenson on here because I think she would fit right in with music that’s covered on sites like Stereogum and Pitchfork. She has two albums (soon three) of devastating pop music. (Mostly) happy sounding songs with lyrics that will break your heart. It’s nothing groundbreaking in theory, she’s just super super good at it. She has a decently sized following across the country–I don’t think it’s any smaller than Waxahatchee– but isn’t known outside of the punk circles who show up at Andrew Jackson Jihad or Bomb the Music Industry (another criminally underrated band–listen their album Vacation) shows, because those are her friends. So in her case, it’s not even a sonic or aesthetic thing, just an affiliation thing. It’s looking like that is turning around though, because both Pitchfork and Stereogum are sharing songs from her upcoming release.

          There are also some bands and musicians from Bloomington, IN who I think are brilliant like Paul Baribeau and Good Luck who probably don’t have a chance in hell because they’re folk punk and pop punk respectively. Those genres have so many negative connotations (see: Andrew Jackson Jihad), none of which apply to these guys who are making fresh sounding music that could absolutely cater to “indie” folks.

          Also, look no further than Against Me! I never even really liked them, but it was weird that once Laura Jane Grace came out as transgendered, indie sites were talking about their back catalogue as if they’ve always been talking about their back catalogue. But now we’re post-Titus, -Fucked Up, -Japandroids, -etc. It’s no longer trashy to like music that sounds like the stuff indie culture told you grow out of ten years ago…. on the condition that they have some kind of trait that will help you justify the fact that you listen to them to your hipster friends. Often, that trait is the mere fact that they’re getting respect on the websites you frequent. BUT they’re only on those websites you frequent because they have that trait that helps you justify to your hipster friends that you listen to them. So what decides? Whatever it is, it varies from band to band, and it’s elusive and arbitrary.

          So in my opinion the answer to your question is yes. I don’t know if I would say there are entire scenes that all deserves to get more exposure. However, bands who in my opinion deserve more coverage, all have some kind of ties to punk and emo from the 90s through the early 2000s that became unfashionable or decidedly irrelevant to indie around the time Pitchfork appeared. All of a sudden some of these are back on the radar, but there’s no apparent pattern in which bands are chosen.

          I might just be totally off base though. Maybe none of you would like ANY of the stuff I’m name-dropping. Michael_ probably has better examples.

          Oh man. I’m really sorry I’m rambling and probably not making much sense with this shit. I’m spouting off the top of my head. I’m loopy from being up all night writing a paper.

          • I should add that my opinion is probably highly influenced by the point in time at which I musically “came of age” and stopped exclusively listening to NOFX.

          • hey thanks for the reply. Most/all of the examples mentioned by you and Michael_ are loosely considered “Punk”. It seems to be a touchy genre for some reason? Is there too much music to wade through that inevitably some good bands get lost or does it have something to do with how “real” or DIY the music seems to people?

            Luckily time seems to be favourable to the really good music so at some point people will appreciate it. Unfortunately that probably won’t help the bands/artists when they need it most.

          • Paul Baribeau’s music is devastating. I saw him every time he managed to make it out to california when I was still in school. The sweetest guy as well.

          • Will check them out. Thanks.

        • You’re on the right track, Nathan — both about the type of music and how association affects it. Bomb the Music Industry! and AJJ’s last albums were both great punk efforts, as well as Joyce Manor’s. CEREMONY only gets coverage because of being on Matador, but even so, Pitchfork panned Zoo. I’d garner to say post-hardcore as well, as bands like Title Fight and Touche Amore are both exciting next gen genre flag bearers, but shunned by indie sites (although there was that one time I helped get Title Fight some coverage on here.) American Nightmare was never spoken of until Wes Eisold put together the chic and fashionable Cold Cave, and all of a sudden when AN reunited, the larger tastemakers did an about face in interest of his past life. Same goes for Conor Oberst’s Desaparecidos. Maybe I’m opening up a can of worms here, but I also feel like the bigger “indie” sites will neglect male-fronted punk music even though its sounds just like the female-fronted ones they’ll herald as edgy. It’s like it never ceases to surprise them when a chick picks up a guitar and yells into a microphone or something.

          I believe Laura Stevenson saw her new track posted on here this past weekend thanks to Liz Pelly’s influence, because that chick doesn’t give a f#*k about where she is writing for — She’ll put it on any website. Over at Pitchfork, her sister’s influence has done the same. It’s just weird how it takes one or two reputable writers’ stamp of approval for all the other large tastemakers to think it’s okay.

        • Well, if you’re talking about genres that were reviled back in the day and are now accepted by the tastemakers, there’s a lot of those. Some things still get ignored, but it’s not nearly as bad as it used to be.

        • Free Energy?

    • It’s funny, I’ve been noticing a lot lately how tastemaker sites like Pitchfork are trying to suss out cool comparables to new bands when the stuff they used to pan is right there on the surface. When I first heard Waxahatchee, Rainer Marina was the first thing that came to mind. Same goes for Swearin’. Pitchfork’s review was pointing to Superchunk and all these other bands, and all I could hear was The Get Up Kids.
      I hated the fact that when I discovered Pitchfork in about 1999 that shit was getting stomped. Bands like The Promise Ring, Get Up Kids, Sunny Day, hell, even Saves The Day – there was a shit ton of good songs there.Anyone remembers Chris Carrabba’s band Further Seems Forever – guys, it was actually good.

      • Just checked Pitchfork’s review for this – they compare her to Elliot Smith, Cat Power and Liz Phair. Pretty cool.
        I’ll say this about Tom Breihan, he really is a writer who doesn’t give a fuck about where current tastes are heading. I don’t think there’s any intellectual dishonesty when he doesn’t point to Rainer Marina. Tom was one of the first Pitchfork critics who gave Rancid and other 90s punk acts their due. Dude has my eternal respect.

        • This is only a small gripe with what you and Michael_ have to say but I will say, looking back, P4K gave highly favorable reviews to early Promise Ring (Nothing Feels Good and Very Emergency, Sunny Day (pretty much all their stuff but particularly How It Feels to Be Something On, and Rainer Maria (Look Now Look Again) albums (and comparable things) so it’s not as if they were throwing that whole scene under the bus completely.

  6. AOTY. Get at me

  7. Tom, I’m gonna let you finish (well, you already have), but Youth Lagoon had the best album of the week (…year?).

    Sorry, I know, lame. But for real…Wondrous Bughouse is the album that is going to shape my whole year, so this is a shout out to my man Trevor for creating a truly wonderful piece of aural art that deserves heaps of praise (and I have the slightest apprehension that it will be a touch overlooked as the months pass (but hopefully not)). Anyway, before I get too effusive, I’ll farewell.

    p.s. I’m going to check out this Waxahatchee album.

    • Back with a follow-up: Listened to Waxahatchee, and it is certainly good. Thanks for the tip. But it didn’t hit me in the head like Youth Lagoon. Still in that Bughouse wondering.

      p.s. Does anyone else occasionally have one hell-of-a time trying to leave a comment on here??

  8. I love you Stereogum, but your ads are getting out of control. Makes me sad…

  9. No honorable mention of Bilal’s excellent new album?

  10. I was, and still am, pretty set on Wondrous Bughouse being my album of the week (and year so far, honestly), but because of this pick I’m giving it a listen right now and I’m really digging it.

    I’m not well versed on 90s emo kind of stuff, but there’s one thing I do know: This album does bring back the kind of feelings I would get listening to music as a teenager. Good pick.

  11. Can we all stop and address the elephant in the room and comment on how we all wish The xx had recorded their second album and it sounded more like the new Ryhe album? That damn thing is sexy.

  12. I would also like to make a statement: All album reviews (from today to eternity) should be as short and concise as the ones noted here each week under AOTW…an album description succinctly labeled as “scuzzy and tough but melodically generous” is all I need to know. iTunes-click-download.

  13. sounds like Juliana Hatfield.

  14. I’m digging this album, but my personal pick for album of the week is The Men. That shit is gonna get me through a lot of long work days…

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