Katie Crutchfield continues Waxahatchee‘s successful foray into Americana on Tigers Blood, a heartfelt and evocative record cradled by Southern heat and sweetness.

Release date: March 22, 2024 | ANTI- Records | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

When Katie Crutchfield started Waxahatchee, the solo project that continues to be her main creative outlet over ten years later in 2010, she was still playing in P.S. Eliot, the indie rock/pop punk band she had formed with her twin sister Allison during college. Her first release as Waxahatchee, 2012’s American Weekend, saw her explore other facets of her musical creativity through lo-fi, bedroom-produced indie folk with a slight country flare. As she continued to grow into her own as a solo artist, folk rock became the bedrock of her music, propelled to further heights by an injection of punk spirit that lent her songs bite, as well as a freedom to venture into somewhat strange or dissonant territory. Country, however, was left by the wayside, the only obvious indicator of her Southern roots being the slight twang in her voice. But in 2020, coinciding with the first waves of the country renaissance we are still experiencing in full force in 2024, Crutchfield released Saint Cloud, a sweet and soothing album that was all clear skies and open fields, Americana and country gloriously taking center stage in her music for the first time. It was an unexpected change, although not entirely surprising: the shift in style felt less like Crutchfield treading new terrain (though she was) and more like her finding her way home. It made sense for her to find her way back South: denial is a river in Egypt; Waxahatchee Creek is a 21.7-mile-long (34.9 km) tributary of the lower Coosa River in Alabama.

I adored Saint Cloud since I heard its singles, and continue to adore it to this day, and as time passed I began to wonder what the following Waxahatchee album would sound like, if Crutchfield would continue her path down country roads or turn elsewhere. Her next studio effort was the excellent I Walked with You a Ways, released as Plains alongside Jess Williamson. The duo bonded over their Southern roots and the shared experience of having album release cycles interrupted by the pandemic (Saint Cloud came out on March 27, 2020; Williamson’s Sorceress on May 15), and their resulting collaboration leans much harder into country than their previous works. It’s a sweet, playful record made up of endearing love songs that highlight the duo’s vocal chemistry, though it seemed clear that it was a detour and not a main destination on either artist’s musical journey. But come January 2024 and the release of “Right Back to It”, the first single off Waxahatchee studio album #6, Tigers Blood (a red-colored shave ice flavor), it was clear that Plains had been indicative of at least a couple things: that Crutchfield’s exploration of Americana and country would continue, and that she really enjoyed the vocal harmonies she had explored with Williamson.

Whereas the songs on Saint Cloud were buoyed by Crutchfield’s recent sobriety and carried feelings of joy and hope, like an invigorating gust of wind blowing through burning skies, Tigers Blood feels like coming back down to earth after the euphoria of novelty has receded. Anxieties old and new rear their head again, but things are stable now, joy is now a friend, which allows for a more controlled engagement. This feeling of progression is aided by the return of producer Brad Cook, who was also at Crutchfield’s side for Saint Cloud and I Walked with You a Ways (and also worked on the amazing Hurray for the Riff Raff album that came out in February). “Right Back to It” is a complex song about how one’s own insecurities can begin to undermine a relationship, and the role that love and patience can play in assuaging those anxieties. The chorus, where Crutchfield is joined in beautiful harmony by Wednesday‘s MJ Lenderman, is a beautiful distillation of the whole song’s emotional journey:

‘I’ve been yours for so long
We come right back to it
I let my mind run wild
Don’t know why I do it
But you just settle in
Like a song with no end
If I can keep up
We’ll get right back to it’

It’s one of the most touching moments on the record, delivered with a lazy cadence that permeates the whole song, a heartfelt confession and plea pushing through not only melancholy but also intense heat and humidity. The spindly banjo that meanders unwavering in the background helps set the country mood, but it’s that cadence, sunburned and sweaty, that cements it as an unequivocally Southern love song. Lenderman’s open voice complement’s Krutchfield’s gentler delivery in such a beautiful manner, it’s unsurprising they team up on a number of Tigers Blood‘s songs.

The shift from the cathartic rock songs of 2018’s Out in the Storm to Saint Cloud felt somewhat abrupt, as if Crutchfield had decided to skip a few steps in her musical evolution. Strangely, Tigers Blood feels at times like it could be the missing link between pre-2020 Waxahatchee and her country-leaning output since then, as she explores certain elements from her earlier albums through her current creative lens. Songs like “Bored” —the album’s second single—, the MJ Lenderman-featuring “Evil Spawn”, or the electrifying “Ice Cold” are reminiscent of the guitar-centric rockers of Out in the Storm or Ivy Tripp (2015), but so much more refined and potent, a clear testament to Crutchfield’s exceptional songwriting ability. “Ice Cold” is especially stunning in the way it subtly increases the energy up to the explosive final chorus, Crutchfield’s falsetto  soaring over wailing guitar and pounding drums. On the other hand, “Crowbar” sounds like nothing Crutchfield had attempted previously, with a carefree tempo, playful and melodic bassline, and shining guitars creating a 90’s indie rock vibe.

On the other end of Waxahatchee‘s quiet-loud spectrum, Crutchfield delivers three beautiful and soft compositions —the harmonica-laced “Burns out at Midnight”, tender “Crimes of the Heart”, and “365”— that are infused with country flare and a more polished craftsmanship, but stand shoulder to shoulder with the raw tenderness of the acoustic- or piano-driven classics she’s excelled at since American Weekend (a type of song she completely forewent on Saint Cloud). They showcase her astounding ability to create rich and enthralling songs with minimal instrumentation and her masterfully emotional voice. “365” is perhaps the clearest example of this, a surprisingly poppy song that rests entirely on Crutchfield’s vocals, accompanied by sparse strumming, piano, and the most elemental of beats, just keeping time.

The record ends with the title track, which captures the Southern essence of Tigers Blood in a very distinct and endearing way. It starts off with sweet acoustic strumming, which leads the way once the rest of the instruments join in on this pleasant final stroll. The electric guitars blossom subtly, their meandering and intertwining figures lending the track a beautiful progressive feel, like a time-lapse of vines taking over a building. Lyrically, “Tigers Blood” is one of Waxahatchee‘s most evocative tracks, effortlessly creating a tender image of the South —both timeless and mythical, concrete and contemporary— where precious memories of past joys are carried with care, in spite of the strain they might trigger. Again, Lenderman lends his voice during the first chorus (‘And I held it like a penny I found/It might bring me something, it might weigh me down/You got every excuse but it’s an eerie sound/When that siren blows, rings out all over town’) and final verse, helping carry the track to even more stunning heights, before being joined by the record’s other players on the album’s final chorus, a stunning choir sending us off with stirred hearts as the music fades away.

Tigers Blood is a glowing testament to the skill and heart of one of contemporary rock music’s best songwriters. Crutchfield has never felt more comfortable or fearless than on her latest collection masterful songs, which always feel like breaking new ground, whether they’re revisiting elements of past albums or branching out into uncharted territory. Every swing is a hit, be it the inclusion of such explicitly country elements like banjo and harmonica, the varied moods and tempos of the perfectly-sequenced tracklist, or the wonderful places she carries us with her voice and her words, unbridled and shining no matter the unexpected turns they lead us through.

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