“I said to you on the night that we met, I am not well,” Katie Crutchfield intones matter-of-factly on the new Waxahatchee album, Cerulean Salt, out last week on Don Giovanni. These words probably better encapsulate the Waxahatchee project as a whole than any other lyric Crutchfield has penned. The best Waxahatchee songs (“Be Good,” “Bathtub,” “You’re Damaged,” etc.) have always featured a sort of self-conscious self-deprecation that draws the listener closer anyway. Still, Crutchfield spends a lot of time telling listeners why they shouldn’t get close to her.
Anyone familiar with the career of Brooklyn folk songstress Sharon Van Etten will see a kindred spirit in Crutchfield. Initial releases from both artists were lo-fi with rough edges and low production values. Cerulean Salt is roughly analogous to Sharon Van Etten's Tramp: they are bold(er) and more dynamic follow-up LPs with more expensive-sounding production, more confident vocals, and a cleaner and more balanced mix. Both albums more or less mark an arrival.
Whether or not this shift appeals to you depends on what brought you to Waxahatchee’s music in the first place: if you were hooked by the distorted, lo-fi mix and fuzzy DIY sound of American Weekend, this new release might initially be disappointing. Cerulean Salt finds Crutchfield sounding decidedly less gravelly, although her songwriting is as razor-sharp and self-aware as ever. Technically, Cerulean Salt is pretty unimpeachable: it just sounds cleaner. (Admittedly, this reviewer did a double-take after the opening bars of “Coast to Coast” to make sure she was still listening to the right album.)
Interestingly, Crutchfield’s decision to remove the noise from her mix mirrors recent production decisions by How to Dress Well’s Tom Krell on Total Loss (compare “Lover’s Start” from Love Remains with “Cold Nites” for reference). Effects and genre discrepancies aside, in dispensing with the hiss and pop, there’s a lot to be said for the immediacy that a cleaner mix grants a record. Stepping out from behind effects and production tricks allows artists like Krell and Crutchfield to address the listener in a way that feels more accessible and urgent.
Ultimately, it’s tough to imagine who wouldn’t enjoy Cerulean Salt. The writing is hooky and uncontrived, the songs are to the point (at 3:36, “Dixie Cups and Jars” is the album's longest track), and the LP’s instrumentation is unshowy in a way that leaves the focus where it belongs: on the lyrics. Crutchfield has quickly established herself as a promising artist in indie circles, and Cerulean Salt cements that she’s earned the hype.