By Jeremiah Tucker
JOPLIN, Mo. —
As a rule, I eye all singer-songwriters with grave suspicion. If I encounter someone playing an acoustic guitar in a public space, I exit as quickly as possible.
Depreciation is one consequence of a glut, and after more than 50 years with nary a shortage of sensitive souls strumming acoustic guitars, an indiscriminate wariness of all coffee-shop style singer-songwriters is sensible.
There is a reason, after all, that the scene in "Animal House" where John Belushi smashes the romantic fop's guitar still plays as triumphal instead of bullying. If fewer hippies are ruining parties with their gentle ballads, their modern equivalent -- amateur YouTube cover artists -- are saddling your search returns with their webcam recordings.
I thought about my kneejerk skepticism to singer-songwriters while listening to the debut album by Waxahatchee, a solo project by Katie Crutchfield, a former member of the pop-punk band P.S. Eliot. Released last year, "American Weekend" is a bedroom-quality recording, all voice, guitar and tape hiss, suffused in bitterness and melancholy.
There always will be more Jason Mrazs and Jewels than Bob Dylans and Patti Smiths (or Crutchfields). And while a similar quality gap exists across all types of music, the values of emotional honesty and directness underpinning the singer-songwriter genre more frequently result in undercooked confessionals drowning in narcissism or preciousness. Or both.
But what makes this musical mode so insufferable when done poorly is also the reason it can still be powerful and compelling decades after Dylan was labeled a "Judas" for picking up an electric guitar.
By paring the performance to the bone, the barriers between listener and performer weaken. What Crutchfield realized is that success requires the performer to possess some interior reserve worth channeling. Otherwise there is too little to hold the audience's attention.
"American Weekend," recorded in Crutchfield's native Alabama at her parents' lake house on Waxahatchee Creek -- also the project's namesake -- has a shellshocked quality to it, inhabiting a precarious emotional state where memories feel more real than the present.
On "Catfish," the first song, Crutchfield sings, "I contrive you with whiskey and Sam Cooke songs / And we lay on our backs / Soaking wet below a static TV set." On "Grass Stain" she sings, "And I'll fish for compliments and I'll drink until I'm happy and I'll wonder what you're doing but I won't call."
Then, defiantly, she declares "I don't care if I'm too young to be unhappy" -- effectively the album's mission statement.
The low-fi, stripped-to-the-frame arrangement fit the album's hollowed-out quality, but the songs are surprisingly meaty. Crutchfield's voice is pleasing but forthright, always conveying just enough to make her point. The lyrics, while haunting, are straightforward, relying more on sticky imagery than rhetorical flourishes.
On "Michel," my personal favorite, Crutchfield strums the guitar so slowly it's as if life is slowly leaving her body, and the song builds to a simple but devastating climax where she moans: "It's late. I'm up on the roof. In New York, I hung up on you. I can't pay for the mistakes I made, so I'll just let this die and decay."
Crutchfield's second album as Waxahatchee, "Cerulean Salt," came out earlier this week. Professionally recorded with a full band backing her, Crutchfield still rarely deploys more than three or four elements at a time.
One of the album's best, "Brother Bryan," is a warm bass line, a simple drum patter, and Crutchfield's voice. The tone, similarly, hasn't lightened, as she sings: "We are only 30 percent dead, and our parents go to sleep early. We destroy all of our esteem."
Crutchfield's gift at writing short, simple songs with lovely melodies that resist verse-chorus structures is also intact, a trick that cues the listener into her voice. Too often performers or shows like "MTV Unplugged" mistake the medium for the message, assuming an acoustic guitar guarantees intimacy, but Crutchfield knows that requires craft.