Freakwater offers up steely South
Every now and then a disc arrives that I have absolutely no idea what to do with. Freakwater’s latest, Thinking of You, is without a doubt just such a disc. Considering the fact that they’ve existed in a kind of well respected obscurity since forming in 1989, yet attracted interest from Steve Earle’s record label (which resulted in nothing but a well publicized feud and some harsh words) and that their particular brand of song craft is considered too twangy for most “country” fans and too dark for the rest of the listening public, my guess is that they (Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin) thrive on confusing the heck out of people.
So let’s get the prerequisite “they sound like this” stuff out of the way: if you imagined Lucinda Williams and Emmylou Harris getting sloppy drunk and booking studio time to record a bunch of rather disturbing tunes about pills, booze and death (and flying saucers — as in dinnerware launched airborne via domestic disagreement, not the little green men kind) you’ll have a starting point. Other reviewers have traced Freakwater’s stylistic lineage back to the Carter family, and one can see why. They deal with death and loneliness in a comfortable, matter-of-fact manner, just as so many traditional Appalachian tunes have done. These are just the facts of life. It’s just that Bean and Irwin manage to be even creepier about it, as in the whispered backup vocals in “Double Clutch.”
From a purely sonic standpoint, Thinking of You is right on. Nothing is too slick, but the arrangements are lush and varied thanks to members of the band Califone, who provide electric guitars, pump organ, saw (?!) and even some horns. The song “Sap” manages to be bittersweet and a bit irritating at the same time, with only sparse acoustic guitar and piano beneath the vocals. It’s tough to take lyrics like “I fell like a thing a thing that falls/I crashed like a thing that crashes” all that seriously. Yet these lines are delivered totally dead-pan, and they push it even further, with babies crying and the lines “...it went on and on and on and on like a thing that just won’t end.” You’ve got to wonder if they’re testing your patience as a listener, tongues firmly in cheek, trying to see just how much more you can take before slinging the headphones across the room and sobbing in the corner.
Despite the little spat with Mr. Earle, Freakwater (slang for moonshine, if you were curious) turns in an appropriately Earle-esque Bush bashing on “Buckets of Oil,” complete with a jarring feedback and fuzz guitar intro and not-so-hidden meanings in the images of “buckets of nails, truckloads of blood.” Thankfully, Irwin and Bean can be genuinely funny, as on “Upside Down” and the album closer “Hi Ho Silver,” the chorus exclaiming “Hi Ho Silver, high on pills/use your hands and tell me how I feel.” There was a comment in The New York Times about how seriously Freakwater takes their job in regards to being traditionalists, and while there’s no denying the truth in that, I think there’s more than a small wink of sarcasm in the sense of melodrama in their music. It’s as if they’re having fun with the parameters of this style, pushing some boundaries as far as they can just to see what might happen.
There will be lots of chances to catch Freakwater on their latest two month North American tour, on which they’ll hit Chicago, Chapel Hill, San Diego and most points between. Many of the shows will have them sharing the bill with Thrill Jockey label-mates John Parish and/or The Zincs. You’ll be able to catch them locally (kind of) at Stella Blue in Asheville on November 5th. Put on those boots and don’t worry too much about getting some tears in your beer- this is the kind of show where that’s supposed to happen.
Album: Thinking of You
Label: Thrill Jockey