Anyone who's ever appreciated the disturbances beneath the surface in the writings of Southern authors such as Peter Taylor and Flannery O'Connor will understand Freakwater. The band's pretty country music harbors the same kind of compelling, complex imagery.
Appropriately, principal songwriter and singer Catherine Ann Irwin--a Louisville, Kentucky, resident who paints houses, sets and canvases when not knee-deep in Freakwater--is a fan of Southern novelists; Cormac McCarthy and Dorothy Allison are among her favorites. But she insists that this literary tradition doesn't represent the mainstream of her band's rough-hewn folk sound. "I don't know how I'd feel if I read somebody saying, 'William Faulkner's a big inspiration to me as I'm writing my pop songs,'" she warns. If Dixie bards are not influences on Irwin per se, however, the same sullen, perceptive desperation so often found in their tales lends Freakwater more lyrical and musical credibility than it really needs.
Stores often stock the group's offerings in the rock section even though it has little in common with its labelmates on the Chicago-based Thrill Jockey imprint; unlike the pop gurus in the Sea & Cake and the electronic-media manipulists from Oval, Freakwater specializes in derivatives of folk, country and bluegrass. The explanation for this genre confusion derives from the band's roots. Fellow singer/guitarist Janet Beveridge Bean is also a member of Eleventh Dream Day, a part of the Chicago rock underground, and Irwin's folk aesthetic coexists with an affection for the energy of punk rock. "I was always interested in bluegrass music," she notes, "but it's just really fun to play really loud electric guitar."
Such sounds, which Irwin and her brother churned out in bars as part of a punk act called the Dick Brains, have evolved over the years. Springtime, Freakwater's fifth record, is typical of the more melodic (and more haunting) music Irwin has been making with catalyzing bassist David Wayne Gay and Bean, who's been a friend of hers since junior high school.
Irwin loves singing, and that's understandable; her alto trudges through her songs with ragged glory. On "My One Desire" (from 1995's Old Paint), she even conjures up a female Johnny Cash while singing about "rings of fire." The intertwining harmonies of Irwin and Bean are frequently likened to the Carter Family's, and the comparison makes sense. But Irwin has her own description of Freakwater's combined vocal impact--one that's facetious but suitably disturbing. "If you feel like your head is being crushed in a vice, that's me," she says. "If you feel like a drill is going through the middle of your forehead, that's Janet."
Freakwater's albums make sense of the players' good-natured sarcasm. Their performances are anything but painful, as evidenced by Irwin and Bean's enveloping delivery and the stunning arrangement of Springtime's "Twisted Wire," written by a Louisville friend. Also on the CD are three songs penned by Bean (the one with the precious soprano drawl) that go down with an eerie equanimity, and a contribution from newcomer Max Konrad Johnston, a onetime member of Wilco whose adroit guitars, banjos, mandolins and other acoustic marvels seem to bring the songwriting out from murky depths. His "Harlan" is a clear, simple yearning that fits in well with Irwin's timeless and gripping narratives, which dominate the rest of the disc.
The preponderance of original material on Springtime marks a change from Freakwater's beginnings. On 1991's wonderful Dancing Under Water, eight of thirteen cuts are covers, and although precious few recordings in this world have strung together a trio of more jaw-dropping songs than the first three Irwin creations on 1993's Feels Like the Third Time, the release includes five numbers from outside the group. These borrowed tunes are neither poorly chosen nor shoddily performed, but Irwin's own songs are so clever and biting that one can't help but thirst for more. Irwin, though, isn't able to create songs on demand. "I'm just really compulsive about lyrics," she points out. "I tend to go over things a million times."
Painstaking craftsmanship does indeed mark Irwin's work. On "Heaven," she visits the territory of self-deception as she ponders her lack of faith. It's a song about her deceased friends. "I forget, actually, people who have been dead for years," she says. "I think I should call this person up and go have some coffee. But then I think, 'Oh, that's right, they're dead.'"
"Washed in the Blood" is another Springtime tune close to Irwin; philosophical allusions join her repertoire of witticisms in lines such as, "Way down at the bottom of a slippery slope/When I start my decline/Fast waters flow/I'll be lost in the flood." But elsewhere, she branches out beyond personal spheres to marvelous effect. "Lorraine" sheds tears over hardcore racism, and "One Big Union" ("Which side are you on's got more angles than the Pentagon") rivals the band's version of the traditional "Dark as Dungeon." Even better is "Louisville Lip," which deliberately, masterfully explores the time when Muhammad Ali cast his Olympic gold medal into the Ohio River after being refused service in a nearby restaurant: "Whip the world/Whip this town/Whip it into the river/And watch it go down/Whip the world/Your lashing tongue/Big men crying like a baby/From where the bee stung."
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Compositions like these generally don't seem depressing because, like the best Southern literature, they're often redemptive. Moreover, the title and look of the current CD testifies to a certain levity. Springtime's jacket is graced by a painting by Irwin inspired by a bail-bond firm in Athens, Georgia, that caught her attention. "I had some matches from there," she divulges. "Their motto was 'Where it's always springtime.'"
It's no longer springtime in the Rockies, but Irwin is looking forward to Freakwater's first trip to the area anyway--and her expectations explain a lot about her dysfunctional characters and her uniquely skewed vision. "It must be really different in Colorado," she says. "I have no idea. I don't have any idea what's wrong with everybody out there."
E-Town, with Gordon Lightfoot and Freakwater. 7 p.m. Sunday, July 19, Boulder Theater, 2030 14th Street, $9-$11, 443-3399 or 329-6353.