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The Boston Phoenix Louisville Ladies

Freakwater's sweet Kentucky twang.

By Chris Tweney

JANUARY 20, 1998:  The latest LP from the Louisville-based Freakwater, Springtime (Thrill Jockey), sparkles like a rough-cut diamond dropped in a glass of whiskey. You want to reach in and rescue the gem, but you're not sure that it wouldn't be better just to drink the booze first and pawn the diamond later. That problem is something country music seems uniquely qualified to exploit, and Freakwater are old hands at it by now. Call it the prettiness of despair, misery loving company, or what have you.

Janet Beveridge Bean (you heard her singing and drumming with Eleventh Dream Day) and Catherine Irwin (you probably didn't hear her sing in her first punk band, the Dickbrains) are the creative core of Freakwater. You can hear the payoff of their 15-year collaboration in the way Irwin's groggy, scratchy alto voice twists around Bean's willowy soprano like a creeping weed around picket fencing. Ex-Wilco handyman Max Konrad Johnston adds guitar, fiddle, banjo, and other twangy flavors of Appalachia; bass player David Wayne Gay keeps time with minimal, ultra-tasteful bass. (Gay also keeps things organized at Freakwater's live shows, where Bean says, "We can always tell where we're at in the set because he smokes as many cigarettes as songs we play.")

Since they come from the Chicago label Thrill Jockey (an indie best known for post-rock phenoms Tortoise and the Sea and Cake), you might think Freakwater are also into deconstructing and demolishing genre conventions. Far from it: they're every bit as country as, say, Conway Twitty, whose tune "You've Never Been This Far Before" gets a delicious gender twist on Freakwater's third CD. The band tend to be lumped into the alterna-country category with acts as diverse as Wilco, Son Volt, and Amy Rigby. Not by choice, insist the leading ladies: as Bean puts it, "I've spent my whole life trying not to be lumped into things, so being part of the insurgent country movement is just wretched to me."

Whatever convenient marketing bins the CD may get tossed into, there's no avoiding the pull of Irwin's lyrics. Consider the opening lines of the album: "Whiskey is not evil when it's sitting on the shelf/I'm as sweet as I can be when I'm home all by myself." Or the existential despair of "Washed in the Blood," which is about her fear of getting caught up in born-again Christianity: "Way down at the bottom of a slippery slope when I start my decline/Fast waters flow, I'll be lost in the flood." This atheist sensibility shifts easily into a delicate but forceful social consciousness in songs like "Louisville Lip" (which relates a story about Muhammed Ali, who threw his Olympic gold medal into the river after being refused service at a downtown Louisville diner) and "One Big Union" ("Even one big union can't help us now/The boss says he might let me milk his golden cow").

Freakwater's tunes may sound solipsistic to some ears. But that's just how anguish works: when you're stuck in a pit of misery, you're in it alone. And country music, with its odd blend of clowning around and depression-fueled folk poetry, is rigged to channel self-centered angst directly into art. As Irwin says, "The songs I write are mostly about myself, so I just have to have horrible, emotionally scarring experiences, which really doesn't take me very far from my own front door." Indeed, she may not even have to move at all; many of her lyrics have a plaintive, searching quality that suggests she woke up in the morning a bit surprised at being trapped in her own skin. Bean, noting that Freakwater's heart-wrenching songs are sifted from all-too-local soil, observes that she and Irwin are "both too egomaniacal not to be writing songs about ourselves. It's a combination of self-loathing and egomania."

Appalachian twang mixed with razor-sharp self-examination may not be especially fashionable these days (at least not without a protective shield of irony), but the women of Freakwater like it that way. Challenged to set out a Freakwater agenda, Irwin declines, saying, "If I had a master plan, it'd be trying to get people used to the idea of frumpy middle-aged losers singing music." If Springtime is any clue, middle-aged losers do quite well. At least when it comes to tunes that make you cry in your beer.

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