Intertwined Voices

Freakwater's first album in five years tackles sad topics without being maudlin

Freakwater fans could be forgiven for assuming the women had called it quits. It had been more than five years since their last release, the forebodingly titled End Time. Those sessions were unusually difficult, for the first time incorporating drums and a string section into the off-kilter, country-folk sound that's been the band's foundation.

Even more Sturm und Drang preceded their previous effort, Springtime. Freakwater's Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean seemed to turn their backs on their über-indie Thrill Jockey label, and accept the flirtations of Steve Earle's now-defunct E-Squared. They'd hoped Earle's imprimatur would take their careers "to the next level," an expression both use only half-longingly, but bad blood flowed, and Earle capped it with a very public dis' from the venerable stage of Chicago's Old Town School of Folk Music. Reconciling with Thrill Jockey, Freakwater delivered Springtime in 1998 and End Time in 1999. Then, nothing.

Both artists next released solo records which, despite critical acclaim, pretty much tanked for lack of touring opportunities. Irwin's 2002 Cut Yourself a Switch, a collection of songs that would fit on any Freakwater release, might have sunk into oblivion had Neko Case not picked up the mesmerizing "Hex" in her live performances and included it in her 2004 The Tigers Have Spoken.

Bean's splendid, 2003 Dragging Wonder Lake was a departure from anything she'd done before. Essentially a song cycle of searing, poetic, indie-rock ballads, it's derived from what had occupied her since 1999. Her son's health was an ongoing concern, aggravated by her need for full-time employment, but the bad end of her marriage to Rick Rizzo in 2001 provided the greatest wealth of source material. The split also marked the end of hopeful speculation about the brilliant and influential Eleventh Dream Day, for which Bean provided the driving drumming that supported Rizzo's incendiary guitar playing. That band's 1997 Thrill Jockey release, Eighth, would turn out to have been its swan song.

It turns out, though, that all the while, Bean and Irwin were in close touch, albeit long distance--Bean in Chicago and Irwin in Louisville, where the pair had met and started singing together in high school. The women would try out new songs and make various plans for the next Freakwater record, whenever that might be.

"It wasn't any sort of big plan or anything not to make a record," Irwin says, punctuating her comments with the characteristic, deep chuckles that reflect her great onstage humor and the sharp wit in her worldview. "At least twice during that time, we'd actually set up studio time, and then stuff happened, and we couldn't go. I don't think either of us really realized it had been that long."

Says Bean, "It's something that's so natural that we don't really think about it. It was just a matter of somebody sort of kicking us and saying, 'You need to go and make another record.'" Ultimately, she says, it was the record label that provided the boot. "(Thrill Jockey) was like 'It's gotta be now.' So we thought we might as well go ahead and take advantage of this opportunity now, because you never know when you're going to have that chance again.

"I'd just gone to see Califone," Bean says. "I had known Tim (Rutilli) and so had Catherine, for a long time, and all the things he'd been involved in (Red Red Meat, Modest Mouse, Fruit Bats). I just thought he had this great, loose, organic quality that kind of had this folk element to it underneath. They really had sort of this underpinning that I thought worked really well. Then as soon as we got it scheduled, it happened."

Rutilli co-produced Thinking of You and played keyboards, guitars and baritone ukulele. He also recruited Califone-mates Ben Massarella on percussion; Joe Adamik on drums, piano, horn and clarinet; and Jim Becker on piano, organ and violin. Long-time Freakwater bassist Dave Gay came from Asheville, N.C., to join the sessions. Widely renowned for maintaining a remarkable length of ash while chain-smoking onstage, he'd spent the last couple of years of Freakwater's hiatus playing with the speed-soul-pop band Reigning Sound. Irwin rented a room for the bitter-cold Chicago winter, and they all went to work learning her new songs.

Bean contributed a song she'd written with an assist from labelmate James Elkington (The Zincs), but neither Irwin nor Bean can imagine co-writing Freakwater songs together. Says Irwin, "No, no. People always ask us that, and I think we're both just really puzzled how people even do that, how people even write songs together. I don't want to say that they're lying. It's just not like a social activity."

Bean says, "No, no, no, no, no. We'd like to be a songwriting team, but we're just both too neurotic to be able to do something like that."

Singing together is another matter. The duo's harmonies are arrestingly unorthodox; their voices don't so much blend or mesh as intertwine. Bean says, "When we sing together, it's almost like two people singing lead parts, and we kind of want to do these sort of twisted harmonies because of it."

The songs on Thinking of You will more than satisfy fans' expectations of the twisted harmonies and bent sentiments that distinguish Freakwater's music. It documents for the first time two songs long popular in the band's live sets. "Cathy Ann," a ballad about the tragic, fiery death of Woody Guthrie's daughter, features pedal steel by Jon Spiegel, a Freakwater regular since Bob Egan departed for a stint with Wilco. Evelyn Weston contributes a haunting saw solo to the hellish murder ballad "Jack the Knife," which was omitted from End Time.

Somehow in Freakwater's hands, such topics never approach maudlin. It's the magic of Irwin's art that she can even write a lost-love song like "Sap," about being one, without its sounding a bit sappy. In "Buckets of Oil," she manages to make a political statement without resorting to cant. "It's really hard to write overtly political songs," she says. "I spend a lot of time trying to do that. I could have written three bad songs about how much I hate the president before I had coffee this morning."

All the songs benefit from the considerable imagination of the Califone crew. The scale of the anthemic, Harvest-era-Neil-Young-like "Hi Ho Silver," is unique in Freakwater's rustic oeuvre. You can close your eyes and see the lighters waving. For "So Strange," Irwin and Bean asked Rutilli for the sound of an Elvis movie soundtrack, and he delivered. Adamik added a convincing touch with bass clarinet. "It is the key to a novelty hit," Irwin insists with a laugh. "We've been doing that in our shows, too. It's pretty phenomenal, because he plays the drums and he's got the bass clarinet around his neck."

The most entertaining aspect of the live show, though, may be the choreography Irwin plans for "Cricket Versus Ant." "For a long time, I couldn't get (Bean) to sing the part about rubbing their knees together," she says. It's hard to imagine she'll find the demonstration any less embarrassing.

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