Down and South: Freakwater 

Alt-country trailblazers, Freakwater, serve up new songs with the same Southern melancholy

click to enlarge Freakwater’s Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin have been harmonizing together for over thirty years.

Edward Neary

Freakwater’s Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin have been harmonizing together for over thirty years.

"Glum and Glummer" could be a fun title for a Freakwater movie. Rooted in the Appalachian traditions of their Kentucky homeland, the duo's music is fairly consistently morose, when not outright morbid. Their stage banter, though, is contrastingly whip smart and loaded with quick-witted humor grounded mostly in self-deprecation.

Released last year, Scheherazade is Freakwater's first record in ten years. Catherine Irwin, who's recorded with bandmate Janet Bean for more than three decades, now says that though times have changed, the band's message has remained somewhat the same.

"The themes I think are pretty constant. I mean cynicism, man's inhumanity to man..." Irwin says. "We may have been precocious with it, but I think it was always pretty authentic."

Bean, on the other hand, acknowledges at least some fresh inspiration. "That grimness comes from a wider variety of things," she says.

Growing up together in Kentucky, the women were unavoidably immersed in Southern gothic culture, but they sublimated it in the music of their own time. Irwin played in an '80s punk band, and Bean, with her husband Rick Rizzo, formed the iconic indie rock outfit Eleventh Dream Day, in which she plays drums.

With their deep-hollow darkness and punk flair for social critique, Freakwater helped bushwack a path to what became known as alternative country in the '90s. Far from fitting into the early bar-band aesthetic of that movement, though, their mountain murder and melancholy referred new fans back to the Harry Smith Anthology and opened ears for the harder, more twisted lives portrayed by The Handsome Family, Johnny Dowd and Gillian Welch.

In the long stretches when Freakwater has been on hiatus, Irwin has released two solo records. She is best known to Neko Case fans for the song "Hex," popular in Case's live sets. Case included it in her just- released box set.

Bean says, only half sarcastically, "It's a great song. She was smart to cover it."

The pair have even more to say, though, about Case having fed them piles of fresh-baked chocolate-chip cookies on their last Tucson visit.

Traditionally anchored in stripped-down arrangements, Freakwater's music lifted up their unique harmonies, in which Bean's skittering soprano contrasts with Irwin's emotionally raw and not-infrequently cracking alto. Now, a klatch of young Louisville musicians give Scheherazade songs new heft and density and a host of new ideas. The addition of fiddle, percussion and new thinking makes the songs stormier and spookier.

Among the contributors is guitarist and singer-songwriter Morgan Geer, who opens the show as Geer with parts of the Freakwater's backing band. Geer's song "Missionfield," about the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, is a highlight on Scheherazade, and the album's only cover.

Even blindfolded it would be easy to tell which other Scheherazade songs were written by whom. Irwin's offer old, simple and classic melodies for anachronistic lyrics, as in "What the World Wants," a metaphor for fans' visceral demands on public figures. Her "Bolsheviks and Bollweevels" delivers an aching "you can't go home again" message in an epigram of the Bolshevik revolution. Bean's are contrastingly complex, with intricate metaphors and a tragic vision. "The Asp and the Albatross" is a tour de force of her aesthetic.

More by Linda Ray


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