Waxahatchee has served as a self-directed outlet for Katie Crutchfield’s endearingly close-to-the-bone musings on relationships and life as a twentysomething, and on the band’s fourth album, Out in the Storm, she turns her navel-directed perspective toward a common and perhaps predictable topic: a breakup. To sustain interest and unpredictability in such a singular subject throughout an entire album can be challenge, so it’s disappointing, but not surprising, that despite several resonant moments, Crutchfield runs out of new things to say well before Out in the Storm ends.
The album’s 1990s alt-rock leanings can be distinguished from the ramshackle lo-fi character of previous Waxahatchee efforts. Perhaps credit is due to producer John Agnello, known for his work with the likes of Dinosaur Jr., Sonic Youth, and the Hold Steady. If Agnello’s studio sheen gets in the way of Crutchfield’s usual homespun intimacy, it’s partially made up for by the gloriously chunky, fine-tuned sound of her grumbling yet shimmering electric rhythm guitar, which is more prominent than ever and rich enough to base entire songs around. That’s certainly the case for the My Bloody Valentine-esque “Silver,” with its droning wall of guitars providing a foundation from which Crutchfield’s dreamy vocal melody drifts and soars.
That song—along with “Never Been Wrong,” the chorus of which also benefits from the added guitar crunch—not only features Out in the Storm’s strongest vocal hooks, but some of its most visceral lyrical passages. The closing refrain of “Never Been Wrong” is simple but effective at capturing Crutchfield’s all-too-relatable exasperation at her stubborn partner. But it’s the verses that best showcase her talent for setting emotionally powerful scenes, in this case about the burden of keeping up appearances as a relationship crumbles from the inside: “You’re smoking and laughing/Untethered and carefree/And I will unravel/When no one sees what I see.”
When Crutchfield buts up against her clear limitations as a musician and songwriter, however, Out in the Storm’s sonic qualities end up salvaging rather than enhancing. Crutchfield’s playing, while reliably rhythmic, is almost rudimentary, and even on a mere 33-minute album, she runs out of riffs pretty quickly. Guest lead guitarist Katie Harkin adds some countryish licks to “8 Ball” and a crackling, melodic solo on “Silver,” but Ashley Arnwine’s limp drumming prevents the band from ever working up a deep groove.
After a while, Crutchfield’s melodies also blend together, especially during the album’s middle stretch, where the similar-sounding “Sparks Fly” and “Brass Beam” are sequenced back to back. That the crunching guitars of the latter make it more energetic and fun to listen to than the acoustic “Sparks Fly” says a lot about how the album relies more on style than substance.
This is further illustrated by the album’s two solo acoustic tracks, “A Little More” and “Fade,” which are totally indistinct. Both of these songs appear on the album’s second half, when Crutchfield starts to repeat herself not just melodically, but lyrically, resulting in songs like the cliché-burdened “Hear You.” The one respite from Out in the Storm’s tendency toward formula is its penultimate and hardest-rocking cut, “No Question,” which singlehandedly expands the album’s emotional range, adding some attitude and swagger that contrasts the pensive vulnerability of the other songs.