The should-be legendary P.S. Eliot had one of those oil-and-water breakups like At the Drive-In splitting into prog-rollercoaster Mars Volta and radio-combed Sparta. The Crutchfield sisters’ perfect harmonic-noise synthesis splintered off into Allison’s charmingly undercooked garage squall in Swearin’, while Katie holed up into a meditative Paul Simon/Bon Iver/Julie Ruin exercise as the solo Waxahatchee to hone her lyrics. The first Waxahatchee record, American Weekend, had its fans. But it was a demo—murmured, acoustic, trying to find feeling.
The new Cerulean Salt recaptures some of Crutchfield’s tune sense as the supposedly melodic one, with a full band that still manages to honor her lyric-oriented sparseness. Tricks like the kick-snare-bass propulsion of “Brother Bryan” or the miniature Keith Moon eruptions that burst open “Peace and Quiet” break up the braininess so one can rest on her solid rock devices without reading along all of the time. Believe it or not, even a 32-minute record needs this variegation, and any divergence from her palm-muted, plain-plodded template is welcome. With its swingy breeze of a three-chord melody and dry-throat narration, “Lips and Limbs” channels Kimya Dawson, while “Coast to Coast” actually refills the all-too-brief promise of a P.S. Eliot reunion for less than two minutes, with Crutchfield harmonizing with herself.
The music’s supposed to be easy though, to help the words sink in so they can be cherished scraps by the time the next Waxahatchee album is prepared a year from now. Plenty are quotable: “We’ll wake up sober two weeks later and we’re loving/ The atmosphere is fucking tired, it brings us nothing,” “I left like I got my way/ But truly I left with nothing at all” and the especially bleak “You honk your car horn at me/ And I will grow out of all the empty bottles in my closet.” But plenty are emo-notebook scribblings that over-rely on drinking imagery (“I fill my jar up to the brim/ I am an arid abyss”) or overuse a not-well-turned phrase (see the back-to-back “Tangled Envisioning” and “Misery Over Dispute”) and use the short-vignettes conceit as an excuse to leave a “his” or “your” hanging like you just discovered ripped diary pages in the trash. For some this is the appeal. But others will long for the musical clarity and wholeness of past masterstrokes like “Jesus Christ” or “Incoherent Love Songs” that require harmonic density and guitar leads to fill in the cement that the guarded words don’t.
Cerulean Salt’s tunes are so basic they’ll tempt you to choose the less slight versions—“Tangled Envisioning” is pretty, but you’ll go running to Hole’s “Rock Star” or any number of ‘90s deep cuts after. Some bands’ slightness reveals enough details in the sketches to endlessly pore over, but knowing Crutchfield is capable of great songs and that few here rise to the occasion is frustrating. But she’s no doubt as frustrated as us, and no tracks are bad, just a couple draggers. Crutchfield’s inexhaustible desire to make short, emotional rock records at an impressive clip and get every overshare on is a rare thing in tuneful bandleaders these days. If she delves deeper into the trio dynamics and thought-out harmonies on tracks like “Lively” and “Coast to Coast,” she may get there herself. But don’t take those records with her sister off your iPod anytime soon.