The Upshot: Twenty-five years in, how well these two sides of a sung coin fit together and complement each other remains remarkable.
BY JOHN SCHACHT
As the fable has it, Scheherazade owed her life to her skill at spinning a mesmerizing yarn. Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Ann Irwin, who since the late 1980s have paired together as Freakwater, know a thing or two about that life-affirming talent. So the title of their first LP in 10 years doesn’t surprise; what does, though, is just how vital and reinvigorated Freakwater sound on the dozen songs that bear their inspiration’s name.
Bean and Irwin were last heard from in this incarnation on 2006’s Thinking of You, backed by Chicagoans Califone and Tim Rutili’s production. The fit was fitful; fantastic bands both, but the latter uses roots music as a launching pad for sonic exploration, while Freakwater’s strength has always been sticking to country’s sonic foundations while updating its content to regenerate the form. Thinking of You still showcased the duo’s considerable songwriting skills and distinctive vocal harmonies, but the record sometimes felt like it wanted to go in two directions at once.
Not so Scheherazade, released last month by the ever-reliable Bloodshot label. The songwriting pushes in a few new sonic directions—”Down Will Come Baby” has a reverb-heavy Buffalo Springfield feel in the sinister wah-wah pedal guitar from Evan Patterson, and “Velveteen Matador” has a Spanish vibe that recalls Desire-era Dylan—but succeeds mostly by concentrating on the vocal interplay and lyrics-writing chops of its two co-creators. They also left Chicago for the first time to record, returning to their home turf of Louisville to have Kevin Ratterman, My Morning Jacket’s longtime engineer, oversee the six-day session.
Whether it was a decade away from Freakwater, the addition of Ratterman, a different studio, or the move to Louisville’s “Kentucky crawl” (as Irwin puts it), the combination finds Freakwater’s eighth album recapturing the magic of their earlier recordings. Gruesome murders, cheaters and adulterers, desperate thieves and restless ghosts, gamblers and addicts, Icarus hubris and righteous vengeance pervade these songs like a compendium of old time-y music themes. But Bean and Irwin have always transcended the genre’s tropes through the depth of their narratives and clever—though never ironic—phrasing, and those skills shine here in more serious fashion than ever before. Pick any song, and couplets and images stand out for the beauty or desperation (often both) like the “diadems of light” Bean sings about over long-time collaborator Jim Elkington’s pedal steel swells on “Memory Vendor.”
“What the People Want” opens the LP with a girl split “stem to stern” as whorls of fiddle and eerie flute from Dirty Three’s Warren Ellis ominously shadow the women’s crosshatched harmonies and a pump organ drone. But Irwin plays with the notion of murder ballads by turning the spotlight back on the killers and equating their nameless victims with someone more dear: “So deep in blood the deed was done/and everyone some mother’s son/whose baby are you?”
Irwin’s gorgeous slow waltz “Bolshevik and Bollweevil” finds pedal steel adding just the right mournful tone to a Dust Bowl tale that rings down the ages to an era of middle class impoverishment, where it’s not too tough imagining that, “every last goddamned thing/will be the first thing you lose.”
Bean’s songs tend to bend the country traditions toward rock more, but mostly along the lines of “Velveteen Matador,” a loping, syncopated cautionary tale about cheating—”you know there’s a loser in this game/bank it all on a face down card/raise it blind on a double bluff/just so you feel like you’re living large”—that recalls late-era Byrds, complete with guitarist Morgan Geer channeling Clarence White’s Telecaster twang. Those simpatico contrasts between the styles of Bean and Irwin wind up strengthening both and making Scheherazade‘s sequencing another one of its pleasing aspects.
And just as Scheherazade sought, mercy is a common yearning. Over the sinister guitar licks and haunting fiddle of Bean’s “Falls of Sleep,” the duo plead for elusive mercy, taking it wherever they find it: In sleep’s “false oasis,” in a firing squad’s “coup de grace,” or even at the end of a vengeful god’s sword, where “we’re too weak to punish/the seven times your sword is brandished/so we thrust ourselves upon its point/begging for nothing more/than to reach its joint/and deliver us mercy until dawn.” The LP’s most traditional, simply arranged and uplifting cut, “Take Me With You,” follows, a song which would’ve fit neatly on the group’s earliest efforts. Or course, in fine Freakwater fashion, the promise of a golden land of repose comes with load-bearing clouds, too: “where is the mist that clung to every mountainside/has it fallen back to earth with every tear that we have cried/when all these hills are gone and all this work is done/our tears will rise to fill the skies and dark clouds will hide/the sun.”
Twenty-five years in, how well these two sides of a sung coin fit together and complement each other remains remarkable. That’s especially true given how many others pitched beneath the “alt-country” tent have either abandoned the fight or moved on to other forms. That kind of longevity reflects the “authenticity” so many pretenders hoped a Western shirt and a fondness for whiskey would earn them. But like their LP’s namesake, these stories resonate because the stakes are high—the need to sing them is part of Bean and Irwin’s survival instinct, too, and that beautiful urgency comes across throughout. As the latter puts it on the gorgeous “Number One with a Bullet,” where a subtle tapestry of guitars, organ chords and fiddle billows beneath the women’s urgent harmonies, “I love the way you tell it/you tell it so low /like we’re already under the waves /my ear to your mouth/I can hear the blood roar/we rage on the ocean/to crash on the shore.”
DOWNLOAD: “Number One With a Bullet,” “The Asp and the Albatross” “Falls of Sleep” “Memory Vendor” “Velveteen Matador”