Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify or Apple Music playlist at the bottom of the page.
Courtesy of the artist
Allison Crutchfield, Tourist In This Town.
Courtesy of the artist
Allison Crutchfield is used to leaving things behind. She and her twin sister Katie have been on the road for more than a decade now, first as p.s. eliot, then as Bad Banana. Later, Allison formed the pop-punk four-piece Swearin', which would often tour alongside Katie's established solo project Waxahatchee. Fleeting glimpses of cities, short-lived house venues: These are givens to the naturally rootless DIY crowd for whom touring is a way of life, rather than a break from it. But when Allison's relationship with one of her Swearin' bandmates ended, the group went with it, along with a sense of certainty as she passed the midpoint of her 20s. "I keep confusing love and nostalgia," she sings in "I Don't Ever Wanna Leave California," a standout track from her solo debut, Tourist In This Town.
What's worth holding on to from a dead relationship? What part of you dies with it — particularly when the relationship in question provided a rare constant in an itinerant life? These are the questions Crutchfield, who recently turned 28, attempts to answer on Tourist. She's a liberated wanderer, dispatching vignettes from faraway cities, though the memories of her relationship snare her back in. "I can't enjoy Paris 'cause I can't get away from you," she sings in "Sightseeing." Back in her hometown of Philadelphia, in the close quarters of a shared group house, she has no space to call her own. "We sleep in the same bed at opposite times," she sings in "Charlie." In "Dean's Room," she mainlines the euphoria of "Just Like Heaven" and "Dancing In The Dark" to celebrate a precarious moment of privacy: "I dance around in Dean's room while I have it to myself / But I feel like you're always watching me."
Punk living arrangements may mean that Crutchfield has no physical space to call her own, but she carves out her own bold lane on Tourist, far from the scrappy pop-punk of her formative bands. Opener "Broad Daylight" is so startling, you might check to see if you hit play on the right record. Singing a cappella, Crutchfield unleashes a regal trill that evokes Neko Case singing gospel, her voice as pure and strong as sunlight beaming through a stained-glass window. Her songwriting talents have long been assured; here, she establishes herself as a gifted singer. Crutchfield often unleashes warm sighs that wash anxious songs with relief, but she also uses her voice to jarring effect. In "Charlie," she recounts how her ex would yell in her face and bite her neck "'cause you like the way I feel in your teeth" with disquieting sweetness. "Mile Away" is a brutal kiss-off — "You were spared rejection and it's a dangerous thing / Now you wake up confident every single day" — where every seethed "you" hits like a squarely aimed punch. (Here's hoping Crutchfield one day puts her vivid Southern twang to use in a country record.)
Crutchfield's golden voice balances out the record's darkly sparkling textures. She recorded with Jeff Zeigler (Kurt Vile, Steve Gunn, Mary Lattimore) and employed his full arsenal of obscure synthesizers while helping to bring a newfound sense of space to her naturally hooky instincts. "Broad Daylight" has the bolshie energy of kids bouncing off the walls; the middle of the record smooths out into gleaming dream-pop, while anxious, flinty percussion runs away with the end of the album, which coincides with her tentative self-acceptance. "Even after a disaster, some things remain intact," she realizes amid the blown-out girl-group pop of "Expatriate." "And I am worried, yeah, I still worry all the time / The things you used to hate about me are all heightened now / But I love myself, or I'm figuring out how."
In spite of Crutchfield's admission that she's constantly mistaking love and nostalgia, Tourist In This Town is sharp, unsparing and never actually sentimental. "The waiter keeps interrupting you to keep the water glasses full," she sings in "Broad Daylight," in a breakup scene where optimism is in short supply. She seems aghast in that song when her ex suggests she should "go out and kill some memories," but in "...California," she lines empty beer cans up "as headstones" when she hears he's gotten back together with an old flame. Rather than wallow, since there are hardly any good memories here to wallow in, she picks over the motives of her younger self: "Was this based in love or was it based in admiration? / Was it mutual respect or was it the mutual frustration?" Wanderers can't hold onto unnecessary dead weight — "More than anything, I just wish I didn't care," Crutchfield sings in "Chopsticks On Pots And Pans" — but try as she might, there's no shucking this off just yet.