Waxahatchee: Cerulean Salt

You either have the skills and an individual point-of-view to make a name for yourself by being yourself or you don't -- and Waxahatchee's Katie Crutchfield definitely does.


Cerulean Salt

Label: Don Giovanni
US Release Date: 2013-03-05
UK Release Date: 2013-03-18

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.