Review: Waxahatchee, Ivy Tripp

Welcome to Ivy Tripp, population: you and whatever emotional baggage you just can’t seem to shake.
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Welcome to Ivy Tripp, population: you and whatever emotional baggage you just can’t seem to shake.
waxahatchee ivy tripp-min

opinion bySAMUEL TOLZMANN < @scatlint >

On “Breathless,” the sober dirge that rather reluctantly opens singer-songwriter Katie Crutchfield’s third and best album as Waxahatchee, Crutchfield’s clear but bruised alto heaves itself out from under a sludge of coarse bass and cheap organ. The song has the glacial pacing and gradually asphyxiating repetition of late-‘90s Low or Smog, and thematically, it has some of their unremitting, nearly masochistic bleakness, too, as Crutchfield repeats every third of her wistful lines like she’s so lonely that she’s clinging to it for the company: “you always walked so slow,” “we could be good for days,” “a sad story with an end,” “and I could just close my eyes.” It all sounds the way depression feels when it’s so acute the world seems underwater. Occasionally a single electric guitar note bends mournfully flat in a passing imitation of pedal steel. This bit indulges the faint lineage of vintage country music that runs through all of Crutchfield’s music (perhaps attributable to her Alabama upbringing), and there’s something unmistakably Great Plains, if a little cartoonishly so, about that solitary solemn guitar: an ill omen, bad weather besmirching the horizon, weathervanes whipping around to signal an unfavorable change in barometric pressure. Crutchfield isn’t fazed, and “Breathless” plods on; she’s lived through worse than whatever storm is coming, though from the sound of things, maybe she’s found herself wishing otherwise. “You see me how I wish I was, but I’m not trying to be seen,” she explains to someone (probably the same sucker who, on the later track “Air,” “patiently giv[es] me everything I will never need” – or, worse still, maybe not the same sucker at all). There’s a coda to “Breathless,” but really, it neither builds nor winds down to its conclusion; it simply peters out, worn threadbare and then dropped into the dirt, as if Crutchfield ran out of energy or lost interest. It is an exquisite and almost unbearably sad piece of music. Welcome to Ivy Tripp, population: you and whatever emotional baggage you just can’t seem to shake.

When we last left Crutchfield on record, she was closing out her second LP Cerulean Salt with “You’re Damaged,” a wounded and nostalgic but clear-eyed acoustic number that captures as good as any other Waxahatchee song its creator’s general post-Saddle Creek aesthetic: part creaky Appalachia, part second-wave emo, part 1990s alt-rock revival. It’s a literal bedroom recording, but also a formal one – the mix, filled with pockets of emptiness, conveys the sense of Crutchfield alone in the room with a guitar, and the listener is there next to her. On some older Waxahatchee songs, the two of you are on a front porch watching the sun go up or down, and sometimes you’re both in the front seat of a car going nowhere (she’s driving), but it’s always just the two of you. Sometimes, the folks from her sister Allison’s Philadelphia band Swearin’ show up and kick some serious ass, like on the Guyville-ian rocker “Coast To Coast,” but even that song is still muted and compressed, undermining its affected scowl with inescapable humility.

That was the old Waxahatchee, and there’s enough of a throughline between Cerulean Salt, its predecessor American Weekend, the Crutchfield sisters’ joint work as P.S. Eliot, and Ivy Tripp such that, if you’re familiar with any of those releases, you sort of know what to expect from Ivy Tripp – but then, in another way, you also don’t. Nothing Crutchfield’s recorded up to this point could prepare you for the way Ivy Tripp reimagines sonic space and, by extension, Waxahatchee’s whole sound, its capacity for emotional heft.

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It’s there in the way “Breathless” and its album-closing counterpart “Bonfire” fill up the mix with such dense static that it actually feels breathless, like there is no oxygen in the room. “Under A Rock” is this album’s “Coast To Coast,” but its fuzzy guitars and crashing cymbals ring out to the furthest edge of the mix, so that the song eclipses everything else that might be on your mind, striking with real force before the venom of the lyrics (“What do you want? What do you need? A welcome mat?”) has even had enough time to do real damage. Tape hiss and ocean waves fill up the negative space of the laid-back strummer “Summer Of Love,”; the reverb on the piano of the intensely solitary “Half Moon” is so heavily applied that it overlaps with itself, both knocking the skeletal ballad off-balance and fleshing it out with real depth. And when the album’s (and Waxahatchee’s) very finest moment, “Air,” kicks in, its drums positively thunder and its smoldering keyboards flare up, a colossal rush of sound that cracks the whole claustrophobic record wide open and spends three minutes straining frantically for some modicum of catharsis that never quite arrives. The wrenching beauty, the arresting power of “Air” is as contingent on what the producer Keith Spencer brings to the table as it is on the instrumentation and on Crutchfield’s devastating delivery of piercing lyrics (“I left you like a carton of milk”).

These are, frankly put, expensive decisions that belie Waxahatchee’s recent move from Don Giovanni to Merge, but they’re far more than studio trickery for its own sake. No longer does listening to one of Crutchfield’s songs evoke the sensation of sitting next to her. Ivy Tripp’s songs aren’t always as vast as “Air” or as massive as “Breathless,” but as presented here, they are all so totally enveloping, so rich in their production that there’s not a lot of space to make that distinction. They box the listener in so tightly against Crutchfield’s songs that the fourth wall between performer and audience starts to decay in fast-forward. For a while, the listener becomes Crutchfield. Her songs are your songs, her ache is your ache, her humor your humor. Her memories – there’s so much past tense here that “Summer Of Love,” which employs an old photo as a heavy-handed metaphor, becomes quite redundant – are so expertly evoked through vivid imagery and stray, lived-in details that they become your own. That they’re often harrowing is the risk of listening at all.

In a similar vein, Ivy Tripp doesn’t really sound anything like the acts it’s “supposed” to sound like – Liz Phair, Smog, Low, Cat Power, Gowns, Built To Spill, Saddle Creek, Nebraska, “Something In The Way.” The inventive production and songwriting result in monolithic, almost sculptural works that rarely make more than half-hearted gestures to anything specific outside themselves. The faux-pedal steel on “Breathless” suggests a particular strain of down-and-out country music, but Crutchfield never takes that turn into genre songwriting, and the same is true of those moments when she glances off emo, grunge, and so on. The recognizable fragments of influences that get articulated on Ivy Tripp seem remembered rather than studied. In other words, Crutchfield’s songs now sound more than ever like the work of a real person, liberated from generic dictates, laboring with an almost solipsistic introspective intensity.

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It’s a disorienting and generally troubling experience, but it’s a peculiarly engaging (if exhausting) one, too. If pop songs tend to appeal to us because they dramatize and elevate private affects and desires – if we make and consume pop, to paraphrase a now-hoary line about literature from the late David Foster Wallace, because it “makes us feel less alone” – then Ivy Tripp one-ups nearly all of the competition by actually translating into the form of song a whole other personality, in all her oddity and contradiction and history, rather than just a reflection of the listener. You don’t just “relate” to Crutchfield; her solipsism becomes your solipsism, rather than the other way around. By the time you get to “Stale By Noon,” which comprises a vibraphone loop and a pair of Kate Crutchfields insistently echoing one another, or the eerie multi-tracked vocal of lullaby “Blue,” it all becomes maddening, overwhelming, exhausting. And that’s only Side A.

On one of the early Bright Eyes records Waxahatchee is genetically indebted to, “Stale By Noon” would sound like a “bold left turn,” as would the crashing percussion outro of “Less Than” and the rattling Casio beat of lo-fi synthpop ditty “La Loose.” They’d have read as such on Cerulean Salt, too. But on Ivy Tripp, these decisions make total sense, sharing a common spirit with everything around them, a defeated and/or determined attitude of, Well, I don’t know what to do right now, so I guess I’ll just figure out how to make a song with this old thing. 

Crutchfield’s music often feels born from a combination of necessity and ennui, a sort of low-key experimentalism that can result in a casual demeanor one moment (the why-the-hell-not “la la la” outro of “Breathless”) and primal desperation or crushing melancholia the next. Sometimes these effects arise in the course of the same song, even the same verse or line. This, of course, is the point – that Crutchfield’s hurt is sometimes debilitating but also utterly banal; that a life can be at once without incident and without hope or love or light. Crutchfield’s great gift is an ability to inflict her own pain and her own banality so acutely upon you that it might actually take you away from your own for a little while. This may sound like trading a rock for a hard place, but that’s life, and it’s Ivy Tripp, too. A-