Outside the Box: On Waxahatchee, Courtney Barnett, and Colleen Green

04/08/2015 10:57 AM |


One of the cooler aspects of alternative rock in the 1990s was its notably better representation for female musicians than previous rock n’ roll eras. Media coverage still tended to be a bit condescending then, thick with “Women Who Rock?!” style novelty pieces. In 2015, the wry, hooky fuzz-bomb style of alt-rock persists, and at this point young women dominate it almost completely. This year has already been thick with superficially similar but subtly varied albums supporting that claim. New Courtney Barnett and Colleen Green records provide charm and crunch in equal measure, while high-profile indie-rock dudes currently seem sequestered in the emotive piano bar of 1970s singer-songwriter roles. (See: Father John Misty, Tobias Jesso, Jr., Sufjan Stevens.) Ivy Tripp, the third record by Brooklyn-via-Philadelphia-via-Alabama band Waxahatchee adds to the mounting mountain of evidence.

The career of Katie Crutchfield, the singer-songwriter behind the project, has had a familiar arc so far: DIY singer-songwriter gets attention for intensely intimate home recordings, gains a cult audience, and, with the certainty that someone’s now listening, starts to flesh out her sound. The 90s concept of a much-anticipated “major label debut” has been muted by a shrunken industry, but a jump up to a happy medium-sized pond like Matador Records or, in Waxahatchee’s case, Merge, comes with a similar sense of increased expectation. Ivy Tripp does deliver a few bigger-sounding electric guitar showcases, the best being breezy single “Under A Rock”. Its intentionally unassuming video betrays an aspiration to fit right into a VHS tape of 120 Minutes episodes no one had the heart to throw out. But the album is messier than that, starting with deep inner-ear feedback and moving through the chaotic digressions of a song like “<”, that’s most exciting when it’s falling apart. Crutchfield’s a twangy singer, more alt-country than often gets mentioned, strong but never sweet. Since her guitar stays murky, the addition of vocal harmony feels like the record’s strongest development. “Slick” still isn’t an apt descriptor, but “lonely” is becoming less of one, too.  

Crutchfield has been a little touchy about all the 90s talk. “Don’t put me in a box,” she recently told a Pitchfork interviewer. “You don’t know what I can do.” But her album’s range is still a bit limited in comparison to her contemporaries. Courtney Barnett’s songs are like carefully pruned New Yorker stories, with an effortless sense of place and more expressive guitar playing. They’re at once more specific and more universal. Colleen Green’s songs are just as pained and painfully honest in their youthful distress as Crutchfield’s, but on her excellent new record I Want to Grow Up, they’re surrounded by a thin candy coating of sharp production and dark humor. Of the three, Green’s songs most mirror peak alt-rock, packing Veruca Salt-grade riffs and Cobain levels of self-loathing. One of her best songs, “Deeper Than Love,” takes a different tack, neatly pairing fear of intimacy with an unchanging krautrock chug that doubles her despair. Smart style evolutions like that are one way to diversify, but there are others. Speedy Ortiz, yet another band in this mold, seems on the verge of leaping past the pack as well. “Puffer,” the latest song shared from their upcoming record, stays noisy but crams that din into the weird asymmetric shapes of early 2000s pop. (It was “supposed to sound like Kelis,” tweeted songwriter Sadie Dupuis.) We’ve already worked out the answers for keeping this stuff fresh, so there’s no penalty for flipping to the back of the book.