Katie Crutchfield has come a long way, baby, since the trembling hush of American Weekend. You can tell from the opening guitar blast of “Never Been Wrong,” the first song on her fourth full-length Out in the Storm, and the pride she takes in declaring, “I love being right.” You can tell when she sings a kind of love song to herself called “Sparks Fly,” and on “Brass Beam,” when just thinking about her ex makes her want to put a fist in the drywall. For the first time, the apprehension and bit-lip bravery that gave Waxahatchee’s earlier albums their introvert charm is matched by fortitude and self-confidence.
It’s as true of the lyrics as it is of the music, recorded mostly live by Crutchfield’s full band at the the urging of indie rock master producer John Agnello (Sonic Youth, Dinosaur Jr., Kurt Vile). Storm becomes Waxahatchee’s first album to be crafted in a professional studio, rather than a DIY setup. The result is a sound that crackles, particularly on its trio of unapologetic rockers: “Never Been Wrong”, lead single “Silver,” and the fantastic “No Question.” The cute “ooo” refrains that animated Waxahatchee’s previous album, Ivy Tripp, are still around, but against the newfound gusto, they feel like accessories, rather than hallmarks.
Crutchfield herself moves from Tripp‘s state of denial about an unhealthy relationship to recognition of who she is on her own. She’s still no oversharer; her lyrics tackle things like remorse and escape, emotions too complex for emoji. As a diarist, she’s even a shade more opaque than twin sister and bandmate Allison Crutchfield, who released her own thoughtful debut Tourist in This Town earlier this year. Allison has jokingly called their releases “dueling breakup albums,” but, at least from the outside, the Crutchfield sisterhood appears entirely mutually supportive. Live, when the two stand side-by-side to sing, “I see myself through my sister’s eyes” (“Sparks Fly”), it feels like as much Allison’s line as Katie’s.
As always, Waxahatchee’s best moments draw emotion from nature and freeze it in amber. There are fewer slow, acoustic songs than ever, but in their place sits the gossamer beauty of “Recite Remorse,” with a synthesizer drone as warm as the way Crutchfield describes the sun on her face. Waxahatchee could have recorded this song before, but not with this slick, dry drum sound, or these layered glimmers of synths, placid as garden globes. It sounds good on headphones; it sounds better on a highway in the forest.
Even at roughly the same length as past Waxhatchee albums, Storm feels more compact. The second half sags briefly between the undifferentiated buzz of “Hear You” and delicate breathiness of “A Little More,” but in the final stretch, the band pulls through. “No Question” is unapologetic pop-punk, carved up in a showstopping whorl of reverb—you can almost hear Katie Harkin’s lead guitar blowing the dust off the amplifiers. It’s clever, too: witness the way Crutchfield slips in a chorus of “It never ends” just ahead of a false ending, or the way the song finally does close with 40 seconds of opiated deacceleration. It’s the kind of glam-rock stunt Waxahatchee never dared pull before.
There’s a tender moment at the beginning of “Catfish,” the opening song of the first Waxahatchee album, American Weekend. It’s Crutchfield with someone else, someone whose attention she’s won but whose affection she doubts. “You dive in, we follow along,” she sings. “We lay on our backs, soaking wet / Below a static TV set.” It’s nostalgic and nervous, sexually charged and stagnant. That imagery—diving, floating, stargazing—resurfaces at Storm’s unassuming heart, “Sparks Fly.” They’re not lounging underneath a TV set this time, but instead taking in possibly the most Waxahatchee scene ever: sunset over Alabama’s Coosa River. Where once Crutchfield followed, now she leaps alone. “I know you don’t recognize me,” she tells someone, maybe her old self. “But I’m a live wire, finally.”