It’s often easier said than done for a young artist to make a name for herself by just being herself, especially working in a singer-songwriter genre where new voices are a dime a dozen. Waxahatchee’s Katie Crutchfield, though, beats the odds by doing just that, showing the makings of a singular artist with a real knack for squeezing bittersweet mood out of plainspoken vignettes. On Cerulean Salt, her sophomore outing as Waxahatchee, Crutchfield finds that sweet spot where the way she reminds you of other memorable performers only makes you realize she’s one of a kind herself. So while Cat Power’s Chan Marshall is an obvious influence as another daughter of the south with a penetrating, introspective imagination, the Alabama-bred Crutchfield has an easier, more natural way with melody. Then there are moments when Crutchfield’s understated appeal is reminiscent of the Spinanes’ Rebecca Gates, though Waxahatchee’s guitar play is generally looser and more immediate. And the most current and maybe most appropriate touchstone for Waxahatchee’s slice-of-life storytelling would be Best Coast, just without the coast and the flirty irreverence, since Crutchfield’s m.o. is salt-of-the-earth vulnerability.
Ultimately, the comparisons can’t piece together the complete picture when it comes to Waxahatchee, because Crutchfield is so intuitive in what she does that she’s like no one as much as herself. You notice Crutchfield’s individual approach in the natural ebbs and flows on Cerulean Salt, as she changes tempos, textures, and tones in a way that’s distinctly her own. Even though she works squarely in a tradition of guitar-based confessionals about almost functional relationships, there’s an ingenious sense of variety to Cerulean Salt that makes it vital and intriguing all the way through, never letting it spiral down a black hole of self-indulgence. Stories that seem heavy, even bleak on paper don’t feel like that the way Crutchfield executes them in song, shifting the pace and mood to keep from falling into a rut, like when she moves on back-to-back tracks from the low-key acoustics of “Tangled Envisioning” to the rowdy fuzz of “Misery Over Dispute”. Indeed, it’s a toss-up to say whether she’s more affecting on loud, buzzy numbers such as the peppy “Coast to Coast” (which, yes, namechecks the oddball radio show) or with quiet, reflective pieces like the closer “You’re Damaged”, where she laments growing up and growing apart.
That uncanny ability to change tone and pitch makes Cerulean Salt not just engrossing, but relatable, even as Crutchfield explores dependency, from drinking and smoking to unhealthy relationships, in the most personal and intimate ways. Sounding like Mirah covering a lost Spinanes single on “Blue Pt. II”, Crutchfield manages to run the gamut of emotions on what’s essentially a sparsely melodic two-minute ditty, delivering lines like “If you think I’ll wait forever, then you are right” in the most innocent of voices without ever coming off naïve, thanks to a resigned attitude that tells you she actually knows better. As Crutchfield hangs on to a romance that’s long past its expiration date on “Tangled Envisioning”, her twangy vocals tell how she’s giving up on a dead-end relationship (“I don’t console you in the back of this truck”), even as she’s keeping it going. But then Crutchfield finds a different means to arrive at a similar end on the angsty “Misery Over Dispute”, as she seeks catharsis but finds herself caught up in her own frustrations, as the menacing, electrified PJ Harvey-like strum and her plaintive howls express.
At her best, Crutchfield has a way with concrete imagery that adds a sense of realism to her tales of woe and heartbreak, adding depth and poignance to them, while keeping them from becoming overbearingly personal. The details don’t just fill in the story on “Dixie Cups and Jars”, but tell it, as Crutchfield waxes symbolic with strikingly visual touches of caked-on make-up and “poorly engineered” champagne flutes to augur a doomed marriage. Her preference to show rather than tell best serves her on her most devastating tracks, where she explores serious, even harrowing themes with a clear eye for description and a jangly, empathetic sound that never lets things get too dark and despairing, despite the subject matter. With the mid-tempo “Lively”, she draws sharp snapshots of addiction (“Silver spoons over fire” and “Needles and tubes in your arm”) to heighten her depiction of a friend living in a state of denial (“And you’ll die before you look me in the eye”), having the scenes she sets get across meaning without judgment. On “Swan Dive”, Crutchfield conjures up a lucid dream world of nightmarish visions (“And you’ll quit having dreams about / A swan dive to the hot asphalt”) and the illusions that sustain her (“Won’t you just let me pretend that this is the love I need?”), making all the baggage that she and her opposite number need to unpack appear so vivid and visceral.
There are still moments on Cerulean Salt that leave you wishing that Crutchfield could get to that same level of detail and feeling all the time, when you want her to push and develop a promising thread further. “Hollow Bedroom” may work alright as an intro to the album as a whole, but the leadoff piece could be something more all its own, while the same goes for fuzzy, roaring “Waiting”, which ends up being mostly build-up with not enough pay off. That said, Cerulean Salt is proof positive that Katie Crutchfield is well on her way to becoming all she can be, an emerging artist who definitely possesses the skills and a point-of-view that you’ve either got or don’t.