Waxahatchee - American Weekend (2012)
Whenever a beloved band breaks up, embittered fans look to the inevitable post-breakup solo record to fill the void that the band’s absence has created. Often, such solo records pale in comparison to the albums made when the band was together, or seem too inconsequential to amount to more than tossed off experimentation. In rare cases, however, that yearned-for solo record turns out better than anything the band could have made collectively.
When the delightfully nostalgic punk band P.S. Eliot broke up last year, frontwoman Katie Crutchfield quietly began recording solo acoustic work under the pen name Waxahatchee, which refers to a creek in her home state of Alabama that appears in some of her songs. The resulting album, recorded in the dead of winter in Crutchfield’s bedroom and released earlier this year, is among 2012’s most evocative and emotional singer/songwriter debuts. Entitled American Weekend, this album calmly and gracefully eclipses everything that Crutchfield’s old band made during their four year tenure.
American Weekend is the kind of drastically wounded breakup album that could only have been made by a solo artist, and although being alone may not be healthy for Crutchfield herself, it certainly benefits her music. Despite American Weekend’s lo-fi, home-recorded scrim, Crutchfield’s voice resonates boundlessly, cutting through the messy mix like a vein of meltwater through a glacier. Meanwhile, her punchy guitar strums take on a percussive quality that evokes the early chord-pounding of John Darnielle. Although one can draw stylistic parallels between American Weekend and The Mountain Goats’ early tape recordings, Waxahatchee’s lyrical subject matter is notably more personal than Darnielle’s.
“We stick to our slow motion memory,” Crutchfield sings with a sigh on the opening track “Catfish.” On other songs, she’s more blunt — “Take my word for it / I’m not worth it” she admits on “Bathtub.” Throughout most of the record, the lyrics are focused on the past. Crutchfield divulges tales of past romances, failed relationships, summer trips to Waxahatchee Creek, and an allegorical story of a 15 year old bride (“Rose, 1956”) with shocking personal openness, and somehow remains graceful and largely composed throughout the record. Her recounting of this “slow motion memory” is nothing short of heartbreaking, and on the album’s title track, it reaches its most feel-worthy: “You’re a figment,” she sings with a cracked hint of bittersweet nostalgia “I believed it.”
Because of the thoroughly miserable landscape painting of her past that Crutchfield paints for the listener, American Weekend becomes even more bleak when it looks into the present and future. Crutchfield conveys herself like a close friend whom you want to take out one night, but she doesn’t want to go because she knows based on her past experience that she won’t have a good time. On the double-edged aloneness anthem “Grass Stain,” she admits that she doesn’t care about her ex, but slowly finds herself being drawn in again as she contemplates the ways in which she will attempt to make herself feel better. On the catchy highlight “Be Good,” one of the rare songs on the album that features percussion, she imagines a romantic encounter and almost pines for it, before asserting to herself that it’s “probably for the best” that she is alone. In terms of capturing the utter emotional deadness that results after a traumatic breakup, American Weekend handily surpasses even Sharon Van Etten’s excellent and similarly-themed Tramp.
After the previous ten tracks of hushed singing, mournful guitar playing and lyrics that read like pages torn from a tear-stained old diary, the jaunty piano closer “Noccalula” feels out of place, at least musically. And yet, like The Velvet Underground’s 1969 album closer “After Hours,” American Weekend’s closing track reaffirms just how crushing the rest of the album is through simple juxtaposition. On a brighter note, it does offer a faint glimmer of hope for the otherwise morose LP. “I’m going to New York,” she declares, “And I’ll be much better there, or that’s what I’m hoping for.” There is doubt in her voice, but there is hope in those words. Whether we should take her word for it remains to be seen, but the story of Waxahatchee has yet to be completed.
American Weekend is out now on Don Giovanni Records. Watch the arresting black & white video for “Grass Stain” below: