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Waxahatchee - Cerulean Salt

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Artist: Waxahatchee

Album: Cerulean Salt

Label: Don Giovanni

Review date: Feb. 25, 2013

Katie Crutchfield’s voice is the kind of thing you love for its flaws, for the gusts of breath that blow in when she reaches for a high note, for the earnest crack when she goes for volume, for the catch in her throat that sounds like it hurts a little, though not enough to stop her from confiding, whispering urgently about life and love and obstacles. Even here, on a second album amped and distorted with rock instruments, Crutchfield sounds casual, private and unstudied. You feel like you’re eavesdropping on a phone call to a sister (maybe Crutchfield’s twin, Allison, of the also excellent Swearin’), as she mutters, rasps and croons. Her observations are poetic, but also rawly specific, like ideas she’s jotted down, worked on but not fussed over, after a fight with her parents or a slightly-off connection with a boyfriend.

Last year’s American Weekend was all Crutchfield, just guitar and that voice, and there are a couple of tracks on Cerulean Salt that follow that template, “Tangled Envisioning,” and the starkly gorgeous closer, “You’re Damaged.” But most of these songs add friction, density and dissonance with feedback fuzzed guitars, bass, drums and occasional harmonies. For this record, three-fourths of Swearin’ chip in — Keith Spencer and Kyle Gilbridge play bass and drums, and Allison Crutchfield sings some back-up.

The full-band songs range from slightly intensified ballads (“Swan Dive,” “Brother Bryan”) to all-out rockers (“Coast to Coast”), but as the volume increases, an interesting thing happens. Crutchfield’s voice becomes smoother, paler and less distinctive. Listen, for instance, to “Hollow Bedroom,” which begins quietly enough, a vulnerable wisp of melody floated over electrified picking. There’s a break, after the first verse, where the guitar turns strident and dissonant, and over it, Crutchfield sings in a high, bleached-out croon that’s pretty but far less affecting. It’s almost as if when the guitar turns rough, she feels like she has to back off and sing in a more conventionally feminine way. You can hear the same dynamic at work in “Coast to Coast,” the album’s catchiest rock song, where a Breeders-like buzz of guitar mayhem coalesces around a poppy, hooky chorus. “Waiting,” late in the album, is particularly dense with dissonance, a buzz hanging over it like thick acrid smoke. Yet again, her voice flattens and smooths in the context of harsher sounds.

Cerulean Salt is a very strong album, frank and blunt and vulnerable. There is a certain amount of art in sounding so unaffected. Yet, you have to wonder where this is heading, whether Crutchfield is prepared to downplay the eccentricities, the flaws even, of her extraordinarily expressive voice, in pursuit of rock abandon. Is it possible to be as chillingly raw and vulnerable as she can be – as she is on songs like “You’re Damaged,” for instance — within the boisterous parameters of rock? Maybe not, but I’d like to hear her try.

By Jennifer Kelly

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