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An Untamed Sense of Control

The Kentucky women of Freakwater mine Southern Gothic



Once upon a time, in the land o' Goshen -- a nice, woodsy suburb of Louisville, KY -- two teenaged girls, Janet Bean and Cathy Irwin, picked up musical instruments. This being the early 80s, they were involved in a series of punk bands including Butt in the Front, Bunny Butthole and Catbutt/Dogbutt. But one night, they dressed, painted themselves up and went way downtown into Louisville, to the Beat Club, between a bunch of strip joints and hooker bars, and sang a few of the oldest, twangiest country songs they knew.

They didn't particularly mean to make a habit of this. Yet somehow, as the Tammy Wynette fashion sense and bands moved on, Irwin and Bean found themselves still singing together, under the name of Freakwater, supposedly a hillbilly synonym for moonshine. At first, they covered other people's songs and then, very gradually, began writing more and more of their own. Freakwater specialized in older-than-old-school country, also known as "folk" music: chronicles of love and other disasters, full of dark, rich imagery. And the tunes? They're often kinda pretty, but they don't wear much makeup.

Irwin's the flat-picking, smoky alto, who lives mostly in Louisville and paints canvases, houses and other rude objects; Bean's the strumming, translucent soprano, who moved to Chicago, worked in law offices, and now studies genetics. While in Chicago, Bean sang, wrote and drummed for Eleventh Dream Day, hardy neo-psychedelic stalwarts since the 80s: songs like "Ice Storm" and "Frozen Mile" evoke Jack London's Alaska at least as much as Jefferson Airplane's Northern California. (A new EDD album will be out in spring 2006.)

The two recorded a string of Freakwater albums between 1989 and 1999, but nothing since then. Until last year, when Irwin moved up to Chi-Town just long enough for Freakwater to record Thinking of You, their first album of new material since 1999's End Time.

On both of those albums, the duo fits many session musicians into a remarkably intimate, home-brewed sound. But adjusting the EQ, I notice how easy it is to mess up the mix, so that the instruments suddenly crowd the voices. And sometimes the lyrical images crowd the themes -- see End Time's "Cloak Of Frogs," one of Freakwater's many struggles-with-religion-and-guilt songs, as sensationally Southern Gothic as you might suspect from its title.

Those are risks worth taking, and usually Freakwater's art and hearts can cut a deal. On Irwin's 2003 solo album, Cut Yourself A Switch, she recalls a Christmas Day long ago, when she and her brother sang with their family about baby Jesus. Then the two siblings wandered off where "the snow would not cover the ground" -- it being in the South and all -- and they built a "Dirty Little Snowman." This snowman kept trying to fall apart, despite their best efforts, but his "dirty mouth smiled." According to the song, "three worlds collided, on the day of his creation, his head and his heart set on the arc of his foundation." Sounds like a carol that's determined not to be a hymn.

Freakwater's new Thinking Of You is a little more overtly electrified than previous albums. Sounds like small engines and other critters waking up after the long winter's nap since '99's End Time -- and raring to go. Once again, Irwin and Bean call out their marching orders to all thangs sacred and profane: "Hi Ho Silver, high on pills, use your hands, and tell me how I feel. Higher power, higher hands up mine, tell me why your God is so divine."

It's a challenge, but an invitation too, like all their songs. So try to be ready when Freakwater gets here.

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