A professor once told me that tension yields culture, conjuring images of a pearl turning a pesky grain of sand into a glowing pearl or a grieving father pouring his turmoil out into the otherworldly Hamlet. I ended up writing an entire paper on Southern culture based on that premise. It was my first thought when I encountered the evocative voice and lyrics of Katie Crutchfield, a Birmingham-bred songwriter headlining her solo project Waxahatchee.
The song was “Hollow Bedroom” off the second Waxahatchee album, ‘Cerulean Salt.’ It has all the ingredients to satiate my sonic palate: a simple opening riff evolving into grungy, ethereal chords, with the rhythm guitar (the only other instrument) harmonizing at a level barely detectable. What draws one in is Crutchfield’s vulnerable lyrics, chronicling a nonspecific relationship.
Such writing has led some critics to draw parallels with lo-fi darlings Liz Phair and Elliot Smith. That comparison, while flattering for the comparatively unestablished Crutchfield, doesn’t do her artistic justice. Like Phair, Crutchfield does have a flair for “analysis paralysis,” a fixation on missed opportunities or her lovers’ nuances. What’s so different about Crutchfield is the agonizing tension alluded to earlier.
Maybe it’s her Southern nature that causes these conflicts to be bottled up and unleashed into such cathartic songs. In “Hollow Bedroom,” there is the gentility and avoidance typical of Dixie: Katie sweetly sings that she “left like I got my way / but truly . . . left with nothing at all.” Her voice stays so contained and pleasant that it’s easy to overlook the underlying yearning.
As the album and her own worries evolve, Crutchfield does not remain so mellow. Her former hints at romantic trouble yield to the self-aware passive-aggression of “Misery Over Dispute,” an aptly named, noticeably loud track wherein the songwriter demands her audience make the titular choice. Even though she’s still held back by her conflict-evasive ways, Crutchfield at this point feels it more acutely and is none too happy about it. She’s as passive as any old-school Southerner when it comes to voicing discontent. Thankfully, the listener gets to bask in the brightness of the musical pearl her withheld misery creates.
It’s odd that such dense and emotion-filled writing dovetails so well with the sparse, unsophisticated instrumental aspects of ‘Cerulean Salt,’ but I find myself loving both, especially in tandem. One of my favorite albums is My Bloody Valentine’s ‘Loveless,’ noted for being a prototype of the shoegazing genre, one marked by crunchy, flowing, almost spiritual guitar rhythms. The sonic side of ‘Cerulean Salt’ is akin to that style (and likely indebted to it). However, instead of adding layers and layers of grunge, Crutchfield pares it down to a simple, memorable riff (much like, and I hate to do this, Nirvana). If anything, it’s an answer to maximalism, a modern trend of more conspicuous artists.
Waxahatchee’s duality of emotionally complex lyrics and instrumental minimalism is both pleasant and artistically believable. She defies many critics of the lo-fi genre by making sincere, yet inherently listenable music.