Wichita Recordings, 2015
Ivy Tripp, the third album from Birmingham, Alabama’s Katie Crutchfield, who records and performs under the name Waxahatchee, opens with the alarming sound of a fuzzy, droning organ. That opening track, “Breathless” is crowded and a little claustrophobic, its unusual soundscape completed by Crutchfield’s smokey voice, soft, hazy backing vocals and barely-there electric piano and guitar. As the song disappears in a fog of static and feedback, it turns out to be a bit of a fake-out. “One, two, three” Crutchfield counts, and the band launches into “Under a Rock,” one of her finest rock and roll songs to date.
Crutchfield’s first record was American Weekend, a folk-rock album recorded alone in her bedroom with little more than her voice and guitar. The follow-up Cerulean Salt was recorded with a full band, but still possessed a kind of sincere intimacy in its spartan rock arrangements. There are still shades of that on Ivy Tripp, especially in tracks like “Stale by Noon,” “Summer of Love” and “Half Moon,” which find Crutchfield singing with only piano or guitar. In places she has retained the magic in hearing every tiny crack of her voice and the strange, rough angles of her accent.
However, on much of Ivy Tripp Crutchfield is almost buried beneath the force of the distorted electric guitars and other embellishments that colour these songs. “Poison” is the most obvious offender, burying the vocal so completely that it’s actually quite dull. A few songs here, most notably the country-tinged rock of “The Dirt” and the bright pop of “Grey Hair” recall the music of Swearin’, who include among their members Crutchfield’s sister Alison. The new, fuller sound that Katie Crutchfield and her band are pursuing seems to dilute the personality that made her so special in the first place.
There’s not much cohesion to Ivy Tripp either. The aforementioned, “The Dirt,” one of the album’s most extroverted moments follows “Stale by Noon,” which is so soft and delicate that it’s almost a nursery rhyme or a lullaby. Another outlier is “La Loose,” built around a clattering drum machine and clustered synthesizers, drenched in reverb. A common problem with the record is that it will often have listeners relying on the lyric sheet to decipher the vocals, struggling to hear them through the thick, heavy arrangements. It’s a shame that many will miss the clever way “La Loose” turns an upbeat love song on its head with lines like “I know that I feel more than you do / I selfishly want you here to stick to.”
It may be flawed, but when Ivy Tripp hits, it hits hard. Joining “Under a Rock” among the album’s highlights is “Air,” with a powerful arrangement that blurs the line between rhythm and melody and a chorus that hits like a landslide, pulling the entire song out from under your feet in an instant. The enigmatically titled “<“ too suddenly transforms around the halfway point, the drums suddenly rocketing away into almost arhythmic territory and a pair of chattering guitars providing bizarre harmonic counterpoint in the background. It’s fantastic that Waxahatchee’s move toward rock music has not resulted in complacency and unoriginality.
“Bonfire” ends this frustratingly uneven record as the twin or mirror of “Breathless.” Using a thudding, low-strung bass as its bedrock, “Bonfire” is like the earth to the opening track’s sky. Moments like this are when Crutchfield’s strong and engaging personal aesthetic shines through. There are glimpses of the greatness of Waxahatchee here, and there is enough under the surface to keep you returning, but the whole thing still feels like she hasn’t followed through on the potential that those who are familiar with her work know she possesses. Ivy Tripp is not a failure, but it is a slight disappointment.
Ivy Tripp is out on CD, vinyl and digitally on Friday April 10. You can also see Waxahatchee performing for the first time ever in Australia at Newtown Social Club on Friday July 3.