The buzz surrounding Waxahatchee is something else. Ever since 2015’s Ivy Tripp, the project has been generating a ludicrous level of hype. Now, two years later, they deliver Out In The Storm, an album which promises to be a fairly emotionally raw exploration of the dissolution of band leader Katie Crutchfield’s last relationship. On the surface there is a huge amount going for this album. It’s their first release on Superchunk’s Merge Records, a supportive, decently sized label which has given them room to breathe and explore. They’ve got John Agnello behind the desk. He’s a man who recorded and mixed some of Dinosaur Jr.’s best albums as well as The Hold Steady’s seminal Boys and Girls and In America. In addition, they are entering this chapter with the momentum of a widely acclaimed record. These are the kind of conditions which allow artists to break into the mainstream. Unfortunately, while the record might actually help them the escape the indie scene, it’s not that great of an album. There are moments of real intrigue and soul; moments where the band deliver on their promise. But predominantly, it’s underwhelming.
In terms of the actual sound, the influence of Dinosaur Jr. and Sonic Youth is particularly evident in the rock numbers. The thick Big Muff distortion and adherence to the loud-quiet-loud manifesto are testament to this. Of these pieces, the strongest is the layered and rollicking ‘No Question’ which floors you with its opening explosion of sound. On the acoustic end it’s all very pleasant with enough sincerity to save it from being tawdry. But what is annoying about Out In The Storm is that they’re not playing to their strengths. As with their last effort, the synth driven numbers are the strongest. They’re the most interesting musically and their icy sheen is the perfect counterpoint to Crutchfield’s authentic howl. Yet we only get two proper cuts where this gets to lead the charge: ‘Recite Remorse’ and ‘Hear You’. The former is a fuller interpretation of Ivy Tripp‘s ‘Breathless’. A great wall of electronic whirls act as a bedrock for a strong backbeat, a divine post-punk bassline and a lovely performance by Crutchfield. The latter uses synthesizers like Weezer did on Pinkerton as a way of rounding out the sound and finding the texture and times that guitars simply cannot. It’s the kind of thing Fight Like Apes would turn out on a great day.
The immediate issue that comes to mind is the lack of diversity in the sound. Waxahatchee have three songs: the fuzzy rocker, the country tinged ballad and the synth one. Now, many of the greatest bands in the world have fewer songs than this in their repertoire. AC/DC have two of the most perfect rock albums ever recorded, but they only have one song. But the thing with AC/DC and others of their ilk, is that their one song is so perfectly formed that any deviation would be futile. This isn’t the case here. Every song is decent, but inessential, which is the mortal sin for this kind of group.
Most of these songs have the same flaw at their core: they’re about 80 per cent on their way to greatness, but the can’t bridge that last 20 per cent. The opener is the clearest example of this. It’s a fuzzy alt-rock slice that ebbs and flows in an almost wave like motion. It’s all good, if a bit one note. But at the chorus, things shift. They begin to swell and reach a crescendo. Just at the point when the music breaks and a heavenly three part harmony fills the mix, things stop and go back to normality. It repeats this four times. On one level there is clearly a thematic undercurrent about the cyclical breakdown of a relationship. But on a fundamental songwriting level it is frustrating beyond belief. They take us to a point of transcendence and instead of delivering the barnstormer they promised, they retreat to a point of relative safety. It sets the tone for the rest of album. Now that they’ve demonstrated this ability, you’re left wondering throughout why their arsenal isn’t stronger.
On the positive side the record does two things faultlessly. The first is the runtime. Brevity is so important to this kind of music as it doesn’t gain much in abundance. At 32 minutes, Out In The Storm is a lean, mean melody machine. It’s the perfect length to avoid fatigue while still offering enough quality to stave the feeling of being cheated. The second element that works are the lyrics. They’re frank without being mawkish, bitter but never cruel. With that said, they’re at their strongest when they’re pointed and loaded with venom. ‘Brass Beam’ and ‘Fade’ are fairly cutting in their views of the ex. While they’re tough though, they never veer into that outright nastiness that defines so many emo groups. This a balance they perfectly handled. It’s a shame the same can’t be said of the rest of the album. Will Murphy