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Turning the Country Clock Forward with Freakwater

by John Schacht

Turning the Country Clock Forward with Freakwater

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Picture by Tim Furnish

July 12, 2016

As the fable has it, the Arabian Nights storyteller Scheherazade owed her life to the skill she had for spinning a mesmerizing yarn. Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Ann Irwin—who since the late 1980s have paired together as Freakwater—have used that same life-affirming talent in their music to carve out a corner in the Americana universe very much all their own.

So the title of their first LP in a decade makes perfect sense; what comes as something of a surprise is just how vital and reinvigorated Freakwater—who appear Sunday, June 17 at the Double Door Inn (ticket info here)—sound on the dozen songs that bear their inspiration's name.

Scheherazade hews to Freakwater's strengths—a genuine embrace of America's rich country-folk heritage, mostly through instrumentation and the singers' close harmonies, and the determination to remake it in their own inimitable fashion. In the process, Irwin and Bean take the oldest tropes of the genre—murder ballads, broken-hearted laments and drunken declarations of redemption—and breathe contemporary life into them.

The duo's songs are not, in other words, the ham-fisted tries at authenticity that mar the efforts of so many Americana acts. Irwin and Bean met in the fertile Louisville punk rock scene of the 1980s, before their first country-inflected cassette—the Swinging Ham Sessions—wound up in the hands of the owner of Amoeba Records in Los Angeles, who happened to be a Carter Family obsessive from Eastern Kentucky. He was impressed enough to pay for the recording of the band's first LP, 1989's Freakwater.

“I think probably the things are all true, what people say, that these two kinds of music are really similar: the relatively simple structure of the song, the scenes of despair and self-destruction that are kind of common to punk rock and Freakwater's Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Ann Irwincountry music,” Irwin told Blurt magazine in 2012. “But I don’t really know what other kinds of music would have been available—it’s not like I could have just thought, ‘oh, I’m really interested in jazz, maybe I’ll play that instead.’"

It may not be the most difficult music to learn to play, but penning moving and intelligent country songs is another task altogether; listen to the drek on CMT today to hear just how many ways it can go wrong. Scheherazade, on the other hand, offers one compelling narrative after another in a recording that The Wall Street Journal praised for its "dark storytelling married with soulful, rootsy arrangements."

Bean and Irwin were last heard from in this incarnation (Bean plays in Eleventh Dream Day and the Horse's Ha) on 2006's Thinking of You, backed by Chicagoans Califone and Tim Rutili's production. The fit was fitful; fantastic bands both, but the latter uses roots music as a launching pad for sonic exploration, while Freakwater's strength has always been sticking to country's sonic foundations while updating its narrative content to regenerate the form. Thinking of You still showcased the duo's considerable songwriting skills and distinctive vocal harmonies, but the record sometimes felt like it wanted to go in two directions at once.

Not so Scheherazade. The songwriting pushes in a few new sonic directions—"Down Will Come Baby" has a reverb-heavy Buffalo Springfield feel in the sinister wah-wah pedal guitar from Evan Patterson, and "Velveteen Matador" has a Spanish vibe that hints at Desire-era Dylan—but succeeds mostly by highlighting the vocal interplay and lyrics-writing excellence of its two co-creators. They also returned from Chicago to their home turf of Louisville to record, with Kevin Ratterman, My Morning Jacket's longtime engineer, overseeing the six-day session.

Whether it was the decade hiatus, the addition of Ratterman, a different studio, or the move to Louisville’s “Kentucky crawl” (as Irwin puts it), the combination finds Freakwater's eighth album recapturing the magic of their earlier recordings. Gruesome murders, cheaters and adulterers, desperate thieves and restless ghosts, gamblers and addicts, hubris worthy of Icarus and righteous vengeance pervade these songs like a compendium of old time-y music themes. But Bean and Irwin have always transcended the genre's tropes through the depth of their narratives and clever, poetic phrasing, and those skills shine here in more serious fashion than perhaps ever before. Pick any song, and couplets and images stand out for their beauty or desperation (often both), like the "diadems of light" Bean sings about over long-time collaborator Jim Elkington's pedal steel swells on "Memory Vendor."

"What the People Want" opens the LP with a girl split "stem to stern," as whorls of fiddle and eerie flute from Dirty Three's Warren Ellis ominously shadow the women's thatched harmonies and a pump organ drone. But Irwin plays with the notion of murder ballads by turning the spotlight back on the killers and equating their nameless victims with someone more dear: "So deep in blood the deed was done/and everyone some mother's son/whose baby are you?"

Irwin's gorgeous slow waltz, "Bolshevik and Bollweevil," finds pedal steel adding just the right mournful tone to a Dust Bowl tale that rings down the ages to our era of middle class impoverishment, where it's not too tough imagining that "every last goddamned thing/will be the first thing you lose."

Bean's songs tend to bend country traditions toward rock more, but mostly along the lines of "Velveteen Matador," a loping, syncopated cautionary tale about cheating—"you know there’s a loser in this game/bank it all on a face down card/raise it blind on a double bluff/just so you feel like you’re living large"—that recalls late-era Byrds, complete with guitarist Morgan Geer channeling Clarence White's Telecaster twang. Those simpatico contrasts between the styles of Bean and Irwin wind up strengthening both artists' songs, making Scheherazade's sequencing another one of its pleasing aspects.

And just as Scheherazade sought with her stories, mercy is a common yearning shared here. Over the sinister guitar licks and haunting fiddle of Bean's "Falls of Sleep," the duo plead for elusive mercy, taking it wherever they find it: In sleep's "false oasis," in a firing squad's "coup de grace," or even at the end of a vengeful god's sword, where "we’re too weak to punish/the seven times your sword is brandished/so we thrust ourselves upon its point/begging for nothing more/than to reach its joint/and deliver us mercy until dawn." The LP's most traditional, simplistically arranged and uplifting cut, "Take Me With You," follows, a song which would've fit neatly on the group's more spare, earlier efforts. Naturally, in fine Freakwater fashion, the promise of a golden land of repose comes with load-bearing clouds, too: "where is the mist that clung to every mountainside/has it fallen back to earth with every tear that we have cried/when all these hills are gone and all this work is done/our tears will rise to fill the skies and dark clouds will hide/the sun."

Twenty-five years in, how well these two sides of a sung coin fit together and complement each other remains remarkable. That's especially true given how many others pitched beneath the "alt-country" tent have either abandoned the fight or moved on to other forms. That kind of longevity reflects the "authenticity" so many pretenders hoped a Western shirt and a fondness for whiskey would earn them. But like their LP's namesake, Freakwater's stories resonate because the stakes are high—the need to sing them is part of Bean and Irwin's survival instinct, too, and that beautiful urgency courses throughout.

On the gorgeous "Number One with a Bullet," where a subtle tapestry of guitars, organ chords and fiddle billows beneath the women's harmonies on a song worthy of The Band, Irwin sums it up this way: "I love the way you tell it/you tell it so low /like we’re already under the waves /my ear to your mouth/I can hear the blood roar/we rage on the ocean/to crash on the shore."

A portion of this story appeared at Blurtonline.com with the author's permission.

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Tags: Freakwater, country music, folk, fiddle, pedal steel, Scheherezade, storytelling, The Band, the Carter Family, Califone, close harmonies

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