Album Of The Week

Album Of The Week: Waxahatchee Cerulean Salt

By Tom Breihan / March 5, 2013

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.