by Chad Jewett
Cerulean Salt, the 2013 breakthrough for singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield (aka Waxahatchee), was a compact, poignant world unto itself. Its brand of minimalism was that of a bedroom-pop art project, life-sized and warmly familiar. And as austere as the LP could be — indeed Cerulean Salt’s best song, “Brother Bryan”, is more or less built from two drums and a rumbling bass guitar – the record was less a product of reduction or asceticism than the result of balance and smart choices. As vessels for Crutchfield’s airy, earthy voice and her narrative mix of impressionism and zoomed-in detail, Salt’s thirteen tracks always seemed to have just enough, whatever “enough” might mean from song to song, moment to moment. Ivy Tripp, Crutchfield’s third album, her Merge debut, and her best, manages that same feel for proportion while sounding tangibly brighter, denser, and more vividly arranged — the homey intimacy of Cerulean Salt taking in the sun on the back lawn. It’s an album that underlines the ways in which Crutchfield continues to understand not only herself, but ultimately what sounds and settings make the most sense for her stories.
The album begins, strikingly, with the rich, expansive “Breathless”, a song that spends its four-and-a-half minutes atop a ringing, oceanic organ as sparks of slide-guitar cross the soundscape like falling stars. Like “Brother Bryan” the song is a carefully-etched showcase for Katie Crutchfield’s voice, but where that song carried the intimate ambiance of something honed in a DIY living room, “Breathless” is massive, its organ cathedral-sized in scope. If her surroundings suddenly carry more gravity, then there is also an even greater confidence audible in Crutchfield’s voice, her easy way with a tune. Her lyrics remain deceivingly complex; spend some time parsing the layers in lines like: “I’m not trying to be a rose / You see me how I wish I was / But I’m not trying to be seen.”
There’s real emotional complexity there, the kind of blended wistfulness and ambivalence that increasingly defines what makes Waxahatchee special. Crutchfield has frequently cited early Rilo Kiley as an inspiration (up to and including a tattoo of the LP cover for The Execution Of All Things), but “Breathless” ends up recalling the band’s last great album, More Adventurous. The song accesses both the mixed feelings and cinematic sonics of “It’s A Hit” or “It Just Is”, those songs’ Wall-of-Sound outros replaced here by a pinging tapestry of “La la la’s” that bob and weave into radiant half-harmony. These are small details and fleeting feelings, projected onto sweeping horizons. And if “Breathless” channels Rilo Kiley at their most outsized, then album highlight “La Loose” captures some of the ad-hoc magic of Takeoffs and Landings, setting one of Katie Crutchfield’s more dazzlingly spirited performances over a charmingly rinky-dink spread of thrift-shop synths and drum machines. Crutchfield co-produced the album, and you get the sense that she knows exactly what sounds are attached to what heartstrings for her generation. There is three years of Saddle Creek Records condensed into the falling-leaf synth-strings that flutter through the song’s outro, and the effect is moving. You can hear the stiff double-A batteries in her accompaniment, yet it speaks to the singer’s gift for unexpected perfect-fits that she works up a melody so ecstatic and alive – Crutchfield’s performance here is on a shortlist of her best — over a soundscape so brightly plastic.
The first third of Ivy Tripp is just about flawless, moving from the stateliness of “Breathless” to the effusive guitar-pop of “Under A Rock”, a buoyant two minute jaunt that features both Waxahatchee’s career-best melody and some of her most cleverly succinct language (an example: “Your ravenous, insatiable / Appetite for the expendable / Will leave you just as hollow as your requiem / You’ll bang it like a drum”). It’s proof positive of Crutchfield’s deeply insightful ear for hooks; one hears the 26-year-old singer-songwriter bend a line like “Well maybe” and instantly wants to hear it again, and is thus gratified when she turns it into an ultra-condensed outro refrain, biting into the words with more giddy relish each time. That is a pop songwriter’s instinct at work. “Poison” is airy and deliberate in its middle-pace strums, bright and compact in its rounded, sunburnt power-pop. It’s a song that would announce (and struggle under) its own 90s-indie template – think Sebadoh or Teenage Fanclub — in the hands of a lesser stylist, but arrives like something agreeably conversational here. The song’s evocativeness dazzles – you find yourself marveling at the quiet brilliance of lines like “I watch you anxiously / You paint it celestial, you paint it serene”, or “I’m cooling in peacefulness”. At her best, Crutchfield has fellow Alabama native Truman Capote’s touch for the perfect phrase, always startling in its quicksilver beauty.
Like Capote, Crutchfield excels as much with fleeting dispatches as she does with longer forms. After the first four-song burst of Ivy Tripp, the album settles into a collection of snapshots. “Blue” barely lasts 120 seconds but finds purchase with its “Running water” refrain and appropriately trickling electric guitar. “Grey Hair” comes and goes in a minute and forty-six seconds, marrying folk-pop austerity to thick, emo strums, dotted with electric piano. Once again, the song’s choppy rhythm and tight run-time only make Crutchfield’s increasingly aerobic voice and always-compelling language all the more salient. “Grey Hair” is ostensibly a bucolic pop-punk song that makes room for lines like “A candle, precarious psychically among / The ill at ease, the summer breeze”. “Stale By Noon” is built from a music-box bit of electric piano and a subtle harmony, filled out with imagist poetry: “Ethereal, I’m in bloom / Torturing the afternoon”. A more brief review of this album would likely just be seven words.
Indeed — perhaps appropriately for a record with a title as pastoral as Ivy Tripp — the LP is filled with these thoughtful moments set in out-of-door idylls. The cover finds Crutchfield standing in an autumn forest fading to bronze, and much of the album seems to follow suit. “<” (“Less Than”) moves at a cooling pace, its barbed guitars intersecting slow-core and post-hardcore into something pretty and elliptical, finding Tim Kasher-esque wit in lines like “I woke up, brush my hair / There’s not much there”. As with much of Ivy Tripp, the song finds Crutchfield pushing at the outer edges of her voice, which takes on a special kind of yearning warmth — she truly connects whenever she finds some rasp — in the song’s clever hook: “You’re less than me / I am nothing”. The song eventually wrinkles into a clatter of drums that bubble under that single measured guitar, a neat contrast of calm and anxiety.
Perhaps the greatest success of Ivy Tripp is that Waxahatchee manages to balance the wider scope of “Breathless” and first single “Air” with whittled Polaroids like “Grey Hair” and “Blue”. The two forms take on a symbiosis; the album becomes a book of chapters spaced with tone poems. Only “Summer Of Love”, which does too little with its acoustic strum, and “The Dirt”, which can’t quite get out from under its du rigueur surf-rock, feel undercooked, less marked by the careful mix of austerity and literary wit that otherwise defines the record. Most of the time, Ivy Tripp is an album of strikingly layered foliage. It’s an autumn record with a summery sense of motion and freedom. It’s that crackling emotionalism and quilted color that first catches your eye as the album’s closing song, “Bonfire” spends its five minutes floating Crutchfield’s ebullient falsetto over a gloaming squall of feedback and crunching bass. The singer-songwriter’s camera-eye follows its subject like a tracking-shot: “The speed of light fixates on you / Moving through time, a failing pursuit / Give off a spark, light up the room.” It’s effortlessly gorgeous language, etched across a song — and album — of equally lovely patchworks, as rich and movingly bittersweet as the fall woods that grace its cover.