Waxahatchee exuded poise and presence, while delivering lonesome-cowboy epiphanies that speak to their generation’s collective existential shrug.
By Tim Barry
Punk, it was once said, is a good look for ugly. Crop your hair, step into some Doc Martins, remember not to smile, and you’re just about there. The music doesn’t require much, certainly not musical talent. Three chords and big boots. Oh, and a clever band name.
Somewhere along the line that all changed, propelled by some young bands that are garnering attention at places like the SXSW music festival, in periodicals like New York Magazine, and maybe at a Knights of Columbus hall in your town.
You could map the transitional moment back 15 years, to girl alt-rock singers like Beth Orton and Liz Phair, and to bands like the Breeders. Songs began to feature pop-hooks, and better singing, while maintaining that off-kilter edge.
Back in the pre-Itunes stone age of rock n’ roll there were something called record companies. And they were always trying to market their acts by shoehorning them into buzzword-units, like Surf Rock, British Invasion….does anybody alive remember Groupquake? RCA Records tried to manufacture a movement under that stilted monicker, and it fell flat. The kids took a sniff and pronounced it phoney.
Well, the kids are alright. And they’re usually right. And while there are still names out there for rock styles today (shoegaze, dubstep, twee), there’s a new sound around that doesn’t seem to have a name. But if you like alt-rock, you’re going to want to hear it. Here’s some of its hallmarks:
Young female singer who also writes songs, plays guitar and sings.
May have a country or folk aspect.
Guitar-squalling duo or trio behind her.
Lyrics that tread the familiar ground of angsty coming-of-age, but sung in a plaintive,
sometimes pretty manner. And mostly on key.
Seem as happy to perform in all-ages shows at church halls and VFW clubs as more high-profile concert venues.
Three such bands have come to light in the last couple of years which this writer has seen perform live. They are generating excitement and treading interesting ground, but in a modest, DIY, hype-free fashion. And their records, while not uniformly excellent, harbor some memorable songs and are worth seeking out.
Perhaps the best of them is Waxahatchee, hatched in a living room in Alabama and now calling Philadelphia home. You could do the band a slight disservice by calling them an updated take on Lucinda Williams — if Williams were backed by Sonic Youth. With sometimes gorgeous melodies that soar along on Katie Crutchfield’s steady and confident voice — this is a hard-rocking band that’s not afraid to cry.
At the Williamsburg Music Hall in Brooklyn last year the band exuded poise and presence, while delivering lonesome-cowboy epiphanies that speak to their generation’s collective existential shrug: “I cling to indifference,” Crutchfield wails on “Waiting.” “Blues Part 2” rather sums up their sense of resignation–“…if you think that I’ll wait forever you are right…”
Entertainment Weekly included Waxahatchee on it’s Top Ten Things We Love This Week list for April 10, 2015, calling it “fuzz-folkie….which “melds chunky garage guitar with sweetly melodic heart-on-sleeve storytelling.” But not all of Crutchfield’s singing is of the sweet stamp; some songs employ the talking/singing mode to which many indie-rockers resort. The New Yorker recently described her plaintive vocal approach as “achy but unembellished.”
In keeping with indie-rock practice, the personnel that make up Waxahatchee are prone to shifts; the current line-up includes sister Allison Crutchfield, drummer Ashley Arnwine and guitarist Keith Spencer.
Coming up fast is Speedy Ortiz, which this writer caught in April at an unlikely setting for a music venue–an industrial park–called The Space, in Hamden, Connecticut. The band are from Northampton, MA, now based in Boston, and are led by Sadie Dupuis, a twenty-something charmer with a self-effacing personality and a jangly guitar. Her lyrics can hark back to high-school; one song relates a tale that happened “after French class.”
Dupuis’s lyrics also bear the searching-for-meaning stamp of her recent MFA degree in poetry from UMASS-Amherst. A sample fragment: “Zero morphism, it’s arrowed frame. Whose count’s empty. I want a name, I want your name.”
These songs can suddenly generate a chaotic maelstrom, courtesy of the front and center bass attack of Darl Ferm, acidic guitar wrangling from Devin McKnight and the stalwart time-keeping of drummer Mike Falcone. Meanwhile, Dupuis strums the chords and pours out her poems.
Also on the bill at The Space that night were Mitski, an uncategorizable but very compelling three-piece band out of New York. Fronted by 24-year-old Mitski Miyawaki, the band’s sound and look is stunningly au courant — put simply, we weren’t sure of the gender of the drummer.
I needed to email their label, Don Giovanni Records, to uncover the names of the backing duo, steady drummer Kat Casale (female, it turns out) and guitarist Maggie Pakutka. If their names are not prominent in their promotional materials, it’s no accident; Miyawaki insists she be singled out as the single creative force. She has proclaimed that if people think Mitski is just a band name, she’ll start performing and recording under her first and last names.
Musically, and thematically, they, sorry, she, has echoes of the feminism-tinged but lilting sounds of Throwing Muses–an ’80s-’90s band I would not be a bit surprised to hear that Mistki has never heard of. Her outsider politics have considerable room for expansion; as an Asian-America woman operating in a mostly male dominated mileau, she has a lot to pick apart.
When she sings “I’m not going to be what my Daddy wants me to be/I’m going to be what my body wants me to be,” she seems to be rebelling against the young Asian student’s dilemma: study your math and chem, be a doctor, lawyer or engineer. Whatever she’s saying, she delivers the message with intelligence and her stage-presence is riveting.
My guess is that Mitski is not going to need a day job.
Tim Barry studied English literature at Framingham State College and art history at the University of Massachusetts-Dartmouth. He has written for Take-It Magazine, The New Musical Express, The Noise, and The Boston Globe. He owns Tim’s Used Books, Hyannis, and Provincetown, and TB Projects, a contemporary art space, in Provincetown.