Katie Crutchfield’s young but she’s no rookie – for years she played with her twin sister Allison (who now fronts Swearin’) in a brilliantly named band called P.S. Eliot and Cerulean Salt is her second record under the name she took from a lake near her family’s Alabama home, Waxahatchee. Her first solo album,American Weekend, was decidedly more folk-tinged; on Salt, Crutchfield turns up both the feelings and the guitar volume (and distortion) to great effect – she might have released one of the breakout records of the year.
Crutchfield’s a talented, versatile songwriter – on tracks like “Lips and Limbs,” lilting guitar that sounds like the soundtrack to old, sun-flaring home movies takes the lead; on “Coast to Coast” she goes for pop-punk distortion; on “Dixie Cups and Jars” she chooses hollow-sounding, bluesy strums to anchor distant, tinny riffs. Her lyrics, though, usually delivered in a soft, soothing, almost secretive drawl, as though she were whispering in your ear, have a focus in common, as she wrestles with vivid memories of unhealthy relationships in excruciating, gorgeous detail. Musically and lyrically, each track on Salt is a short-but-sweet time capsule that summons a particular memory of a particular lost time about which Crutchfield sounds half nostalgic and half pleased to be done with. On “Lips and Limbs” she sings “You’re deaf and dumb and I am numb and we’re alone and eighteen,” and that guitar line is aural nostalgia but her words are undercut by a sense of irony; you get the feeling she would change that memory if she could. Same with her words in “Blue Pt. II:” “If you think that I’ll wait forever you were right and I’d give you everything you wanted if I can” – she sounds so hollow and lost that it feels like a fact, but it’s not one that makes her proud.
Then there’s album highlight “Dixie Cups and Jars,” where Crutchfield sings about the grotesque nightmare and existential disappointment of an old friend’s wedding (“makeup sits on your face like tar”). Her minimalist, repetitive guitar gives her voice plenty of room to seethe; every verse seems to end with a line about her need to run away; in the end all she can do is find escape “in aerator bliss,” filling her mason jar to the brim as everyone around her drinks from champagne flutes. She’s disappointed in her newly married friend and in the lost lovers of the record’s other songs, but you get the sense that most profoundly she’s disappointed in herself – “this place is vile and I am vile too,” she belts over simple acoustic strumming on “You’re Damaged.” “My words are ugly and you can’t discern me.” In the end, Crutchfield’s music is hauntingly personal not because it gives you uncomfortably wide a window into her own life but because it provides you with a mirror. Words like “identifiable” get thrown around a lot with reference to a myriad of artists, and Crutchfield isn’t necessarily aiming to delineate any universal truths about love or loss, but what makes Cerulean Salt so enjoyable and so endlessly relistenable is that some of her snapshots likely resemble ones from your own lost photo albums. [B+]
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