Waxahatchee – Out in the Storm

Waxahatchee is a shape-shifting proposition. Katie Crutchfield still occasionally ventures out under the moniker on solo guitar – which was the project’s genesis – even after its evolution into a full band. She recently road-tested unreleased material as a duo, alongside longtime bassist Katherine Simonetti, opening for the New Pornographers. These new songs sounded sturdy but overly mannered in that setting. Fortunately, Crutchfield was playing a classic bait and switch.

One could make the case that Crutchfield’s entire Waxahatchee output serves as a linear progression leading to Out in the Storm – from American Weekend’s bedroom demos to the sparse introspection of Cerulean Salt to 2015’s fleshed-out but still scruffy Ivy Tripp. That latter title found Crutchfield at a crossroads – recorded as her romantic relationship with collaborator Keith Spencer was crumbling, its lyrics telegraphing unsettled emotions just as its music burst at the stylistic seams. The pair tried to coexist in the touring band for a bit, but jettisoned that plan pretty quickly.

Now comes the real breakup album – one that Crutchfield infuses with hints of regret but a lot more bile and anger. Out in the Storm marks the first time Waxahatchee has ventured outside the band for production help, and John Agnello has helped to capture a more robust, assured sound.

Much will be made of Agnello’s past work with Dinosaur Jr and Sonic Youth – and he does deliver a crunchy ’90s guitar vibe on about half the album – but I’m more often reminded of vintage Yo La Tengo, especially on the organ-drenched “Recite Remorse,” or excursions to the fringes of Guyville with the unflinching exposition of “Brass Beam.” I suspect transplanted southerner Crutchfield chose Agnello more for his success in keeping the scale manageable working with her Philly contemporaries Kurt Vile and Hop Along.

Despite the radio-friendly arrangements – which incorporate a few honest-to-God guitar breaks from Katie Harkin, who Crutchfield met while on the road with Sleater-Kinney – she hasn’t left behind her other formidable calling cards. Two of Storm’s best tracks are quieter ones – the twangy “8 Ball” and the beguiling, reverb-laden “Sparks Fly.” She imbues the entire set with her preternatural vocals and on “Hear You,” Simonetti’s buzzing bass girds some soaring intertwined harmonies with Katie’s identical twin Allison (whose solo debut earlier this year was fueled by its own breakup).

Everything about Out in the Storm feels like a Year’s Best contender – it’s diverse yet cohesive, the lyrical message stands up to the melodies, and there’s not a clunker among its ten jagged little pills. Although Waxahatchee has always been Katie Crutchfield’s baby, I bet she felt added resolve this time around to take a big step forward and demonstrate her resilience. And you know what? She did it.

Out in the Storm

Waxahatchee plays the Georgia Theatre in Athens on Thursday, August 10th for PopFest, and Terminal West in Atlanta on Friday, August 11th.