While Beyonce and Solange are certainly the most successful and well-known sister act in the music scene, my personal favorites are Katie and Allison Crutchfield. The twin sisters, native to Alabama but transplants to Philadelphia, started writing songs and performing together in high school as P.S. Eliot. Katie, going by the moniker Waxahatchee, was the first to break through into mainstream success on the back of her incredible 2013 album Cerulean Salt (which is all time favorite of mine), and pretty much every song she’s put out since has been at least notch above your typical indie singer-songwriter fare. Meanwhile, Allison put out two somewhat overlooked but excellent records with her punk band, Swearin. Because the sisters have such similar voices, Waxahatchee was in some ways like an unplugged version of Swearin’, or vice-versa. But anyone who listens to these songwriters as closely as I do would notice subtle differences in lyrical style, melodies, arrangements and song-structures.
Those differences come to a head on Allison’s Tourist In This Town, the first release under her own name. For one, Tourist is a synthesizer based record. Guitars still abound, and there is live drumming, so I’d hesitate to call this an electronic record, but the best description would be to call it a synthpop/indie-rock hybrid. While Waxahatchee lyrics are beautiful and poetic but opaque beneath layers of metaphor, Allison has always written in more straightforward language, and does so consistently throughout Tourist. This is easily decipherable as a breakup record, and although veiled crypticism is a hallmark of Waxahatchee music, there’s something refreshing to Allison’s everyday imagery. She’s “drinking champagne sangria on the rocky beach” in Porto, “Losing her shit… in the backseat of a van”, or finding “empties at the headstones” (which signals that her love interest has gotten back with his ex-girlfriend in their old stomping ground).
The record begins with its strongest song, “Broad Daylight”, which opens with a red herring of a prelude that positions it as a vocal a cappella before synthesizers fade in to introduce us to the brand new world of Crutchfield’s musical palette. Crackling drums shatter the delicate synth arrangements, making the 2-minute mark the best moment on the whole record. Lyrically, Crutchfield mixes well-worded (if not well-trodden) breakup sentiments (“Was it mutual respect or was it mutual frustration?”) with more personal details (“Was it the great moonlight that night in July? Just remembering the heat’s enough to make me cry”). The follow-up, “I Don’t Ever Wanna Leave California” features one of the record’s best melody lines and returns to a familiar, easy-going surf-rock vibe seen on many a Swearin’ song.
At ten songs and 33 minutes, Tourist is consistent with the brevity of Swearin’ releases, but a couple of these songs drag on longer than previously seen. The biggest offenders fall in the rough stretch of songs 4-5. On “Dean’s Room” a triumphant but unchanging drum pattern persists for the songs long 4:17 runtime. I’m also not crazy about the chorus here, a repetition of “You just wanna catch me alone” that feels lazy next to far-superior lyrical moments on other tracks. “Sightseeing” comes next, a percussion-less, atmospheric snoozer that has some nice imagery about Paris but also goes on far too long (4:38).
The back half, however, starts on the right foot with one of the album’s best tracks, “Expatriate”, a lyric from which the album takes its name. Up until this point in the record, Allison hasn’t really sung about anyone but ex-lovers, and without a careful eye for detail, “Expatriate” would fall into similar terrain. But lines like ” write me one more song”, “you were my only family”, “even after a disaster, some things remain intact” and “I will always love you” lead me to believe the song is written about Katie. Behind an upbeat, bouncing piano melody, this track also reveals more about the singer herself, displaying her worry about touring, her career in music, and the feeling that in the music industry, she’s “a tourist in this town” (at least in comparison to her sister).
My biggest gripe with the record is, unfortunately, the production. The drums and vocals frequently sound cheap and scratchy, either over-condensed, over-reverbed, or both. Nowhere is this more apparent than the blazing 1-minute punk track “The Marriage”, which has a great melody and energy but gets crushed by the lo-fi recording, which sounds dirty and murky next to every other track on the record. I’m also not a fan of the cover art – something about that background looks so green screen, Allison’s blank expression doesn’t do anything for me, and those weird white lines behind her look tacky. Between the art and the production, Tourist comes off somewhat amateurish, which is a shame, knowing that Allison has put out well-produced, professional music in the past.
But overall, Tourist is a success. Allison’s pivot to synthesizers feels natural, and the sound she nails on the album doesn’t neatly fall into any over-done genre. The melody lines are always on point, her singing and personal, affected vocal styling is still her biggest asset, and the big, anthemic, cathartic moments are satisfying emotional payoffs. While this isn’t the slam dunk that the latter two Swearin’ records have been, it’s not a regression, either, and I look forward to Crutchfield’s next project.