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Waxahatchee - Great Thunder EP Music Album Reviews

Katie Crutchfield revisits six tracks originally recorded in 2012, waving away the lo-fi haze that blanketed much of her early work to reveal her celebrated skills as a storyteller and singer.

Katie Crutchfield’s back catalog is ripe for rediscovery. Since embarking on her first musical venture—The Ackleys, co-fronted with her twin sister Allison, who now leads Swearin’—at age 15, Crutchfield has bounced between collaborative recording projects, released four studio albums under her solo alias Waxahatchee, and experienced no apparent dips in productivity. Now 29, Crutchfield is heralded for the dexterity and directness of her songwriting, but the sheer size of her oeuvre means that some of her songs remain unknown even to steadfast fans.

She took her first step toward remedying this with 2016’s Early Recordings, a reissue of her little-heard first EP as Waxahatchee. Now, Crutchfield has excavated another EP’s worth of songs, this one from a short-lived group she formed with Swearin’ bassist Keith Spencer in 2012. Great Thunder, which shares that band’s name, reintroduces six of its tracks. While the new recordings vary in their faithfulness to the originals, all are minimally arranged, foregoing showy production to highlight Crutchfield’s skills as a storyteller and singer. Time has brought these treasures into sharper focus, waving away the lo-fi haze that blanketed much of her early work and retelling old tales with new clarity and conviction.

Recorded at April Base, Justin Vernon’s secluded Wisconsin studio, Great Thunder has the expected cabin-in-the-woods vibes, both in the sparse acoustic instrumentation that shapes each song and in the pangs of isolation that course through its emotional core. On “You’re Welcome,” Crutchfield turns to make-believe to bridge the space between herself and another: “You can pretend you don’t hold back anymore.” The haunting lead single “Chapel of Pines” is built around the question, “Will you go?,” posed as a relationship falls into crisis (the lyric has changed from the original, hypothetical “Would you go?”). “You Left Me With an Ocean” gives the query its tragic answer: “You can’t say goodbye/You rip out its lungs and you let it die,” Crutchfield laments.

These stories of separation and distance are intensified by the way Crutchfield tells them. Her voice has always been striking; both airy and gritty, it floats delicately through her melodies but sometimes gets caught on a note or two. Here, it gains additional texture from the sickness that befell Crutchfield just before she began recording. She strains more than usual: In the sustained notes of closer “Take So Much,” this audible pain makes the narrative—in this case, centered on her earnest desire to take the blame for a partner’s shortcomings—all the more potent. Here, and often throughout the EP, Crutchfield’s only accompaniment comes from unfussy block chords plunked out on a piano. Tasked with holding the listener’s attention, her voice delivers.

If you feel the slightest bit of whiplash listening to these tracks on the heels of Crutchfield’s latest album, last year’s remarkable Out in the Storm, you aren’t alone. That release made a case for her skill as a rock bandleader; it found her crashing through the end of a relationship with live-wire energy and a herd of brash electric guitars. She has acknowledged the disconnect between her two most recent releases, calling Great Thunder “a complete 180” from Out in the Storm. Presumably, this paring down is not a permanent stylistic shift so much as a creative exercise —a chance for Crutchfield to revisit the simple roots of her songwriting practice. In its completion, she has demonstrated just how few colors she needs to paint vividly.

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