Tuesday, April 7, 2015

You're unlikely to hear a better album this year than Waxahatchee's "Ivy Tripp"

Despite only being 26 years old, Katie Crutchfield is something of a veteran in the indie world.  She's been recording and releasing music since she was a teenager, where she was in a band called The Ackleys with her twin sister Allison, and the both of them later went on to release two albums and an EP in the cult pop-punk band P.S. Eliot.  After the amicable breakup of that band in 2011, the Crutchfield twins went on to separate projects that attacked 90s alt revival from two different angles, with Allison forming the excellent fuzz-rock band Swearin' and Katie going the more introspective route with her solo project Waxahatchee.  American Weekend, her first album, was a terrific set of soul-bearing acoustic songs, but it wasn't until Cerulean Salt that she truly showed her potential.  Despite nearly a decade of fantastic work, it was the album that really put Katie Crutchfield on the map, gathering a slew of gushing reviews and winding up on many Best of 2013 lists.

With the breakout success of her sophomore album, she was left with the nearly impossible task of following it up.  And yet, she succeeds with Ivy Tripp, a record that takes a step forward while still feeling recognizable.  In the press release that announced the album a few months ago, Crutchfield wrote, "The title Ivy Tripp is really just a term I made up for directionless-ness, specifically of the 20-something, 30-something, 40-something of today, lacking regard for the complaisant life path of our parents and grandparents. I have thought of it like this: Cerulean Salt is a solid and Ivy Tripp is a gas."  You can definitely feel that sense of searching in the music of Ivy, which covers more sonic territory than Cerulean's specific brand of Kathleen Hanna-esque 90s alt-rock.  This album still has that ("Breathless," "Less Than"), but it also has a song with a bendy surf riff ("The Dirt"), a starry-eyed Built to Spill sprawl ("Bonfire"), a buoyant pop nugget ("La Loose"), and a song that sounds like it belongs to her sister's band ("Under a Rock").  If Cerulean Salt was about Crutchfield finding her pocket, then Ivy Tripp is about her spreading out and seeing what she's capable of.  It turns out the answer is almost everything.

In interviews, Crutchfield has mentioned that she doesn't enjoy being in studios, so she chose to record Ivy Tripp mostly in her house and a high school gymnasium.  You can hear the latter in a song like lead single "Air," whose chorus is so massive it sounds like she's bellowing it from the bottom of a canyon.  And the rest of the album has that same spacious, homespun quality.  Aside from a few rockers, the record has pretty sparse production, which only makes the melodies more insistent.

Lyrically, Ivy Tripp returns to that idea of being like a gas too.  It's a restless album, one full of "maybe"s and fidgety anxiety.  Many of the songs focus on not truly knowing what she wants out of life.  Take album opener "Breathless," which seems to be all about a guy who's everything one could ask for, yet she's not interested anyway.  "You indulge me, I indulge you, but I'm not trying to have it all," the song concludes.  "Air" covers similar ground, too: "And you were waiting patiently, giving every answer as I roamed free."  There's a feeling of movement that carries Ivy Tripp.  "Running water, running," the chorus of "Blue" repeats, and it could easily be referring to thoughts, emotions, or physical states.

Listening to a Waxahatchee song feels like having a direct line to the mindset of Katie Crutchfield, and it doesn't get more raw and immediate than on Ivy Tripp.  There's such an immediacy to it, in fact, that it often seems like we're following her as she comes to a revelation mid-song.  The subject matter on the album -- uncertainty; messy, complicated relationships; only slightly less messy, complicated relationships -- is stock 20-something malaise, but Crutchfield has the ability to make the most banal thoughts feel poetic and wrenching.

There's a quietly grim fatalism that hangs over this album, a sense that everything will sour eventually.  Even "La Loose" which feigns being joyous and romantic, is pulled back to earth with an aside like, "This charming picture of / hysteria in love / it could fade or wrinkle up / I don't hold faith in much."  Bleakness abounds on these 13 songs, and it's usually brutally pointed inward, bordering on self-abuse.  See for yourself: "When I am gone, at least I won't be thinking" ("Air"), "I'm a basement, brimming with nothing great" ("The Dirt"), "I know that I feel more than you do, I selfishly want you here to stick to" ("La Loose"), "And I will visualize a tragedy and blame you for it" ("La Loose").  Later, she closes "Less Than" by repeating "You're less than me, and I am nothing."  Even when she's putting down a guy, she can't help but lay into herself too.

It's so easy to go on and on about the lyrical content on this album because it's clear that Crutchfield puts so much thought and time into her words.  Here's the thing about Ivy Tripp: it contains at least 10 perfect lines.  And that's probably lowballing it.  You can comb through the lyrics sheet and pluck out  a number of magnificently crafted, poetic lines as your favorite, but I'll go with the wonderful and succinct, "The summer of love is a photo of us."  Her writing prowess doesn't just reveal itself in quotes either -- she's also got a knack for structure.  And it's wielded with great precision on "Half Moon."  It's a slow, sparse piano ballad that seems to be a nostalgic stroll through a former relationship, with little reminiscences like, "I invite myself in and I think I kissed you first."  Slowly, it turns in the middle, as a little bit of reality creeps in ("Our love tastes like sugar, but it pulls all the life out of me.")  Finally, it culminates in a sobering conclusion, as she talks about somebody else her ex is pursuing: "And she lied when she said she would call you today / And you know I couldn't blame her / The pain that you make / It never dies. / I hung up in a wistful disguise."  That punchline lingers with me every time.  My amount of spins of this album are in the double digits at this point, and it still stings.

Cerulean Salt was a very important album to me.  On my first few listens, I thought it was fine, but nothing world-conquering.  With time, it eventually soared all the way up to #5 on my Favorite Albums of 2013 list when it came around in December of that year.  It creeps up on you like that.  Somehow, I love it even more than I did then; it's always accumulating more power.  So it's not without great consideration when I say that Ivy Tripp may be even better.  With it, she's made another bible for my early 20s, one that I'll hold dearly and look back on with more than a wistful disguise.  Katie Crutchfield may be a veteran in the game, but the scary thing is that it feels like she's just getting started.