If there’s an act that is more emblematic of the contentious relationship between country and alt.country than Freakwater, it certainly doesn’t come to mind. The Chicago/Louisville duo of Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Ann Irwin (plus longtime bassist David Wayne Gay) is routinely described by writers as “Kentucky bluegrass,” evocative of country icons such as the Blue Sky Boys and the Louvin Brothers. Just about as often, it’s been issued a shotgun divorce from country by others by others (including me) for flouting, or at least ignoring, important aspects of the traditions created by Sara & Maybelle Carter and Ira & Charlie Louvin. The debate, such as it is, has been inflamed by Freakwater’s early reliance on songs from those traditions, which yielded performances that could be (and were) compared to those by artists who adhered more rigorously to the conventions.
If that sounds vague and abstract, here’s a good example: Even their most enthusiastic proponents (and there are many) freely admit that singing in tune just doesn’t seem to be a high priority for Bean and Irwin. For some, that’s not a very useful datum; for others, it’s been a huge obstacle to appreciation, a constant irritant when listening to their rendering of a durable country/bluegrass classic such as “Put My Little Shoes Away” (memorably recorded by, among others, Bill Monroe and Mac Wiseman). In fact, I’ve never been able to get through their version of it; the wobbling pitches and octave harmonies, the sloppy (to my bluegrass-trained ears) timing, the rudimentary instrumental accompaniment — and the inexplicable willingness of some writers to praise these things as “pure Carter Family Appalachian moonshine,” as a Rolling Stone reviewer did — combined to produce an almost violent distaste for the music.
Hence it was with some mixed feelings that I took on the assignment of reviewing End Time, the band’s latest release, thought I promised to listen with an open mind, setting aside my distaste for their past efforts. As it happens, though, a fresh approach is what this album demands from most listeners, for it embodies a substantial change in Freakwater’s sound. Largely absent are the banjos, mandolins and prominent acoustic guitars of their earlier records; in their place are drums, organ, electric guitar and pedal steel, while the fiddle is augmented on more than one occasion by a bona fide, albeit small, string section. Indeed, were it not for the familiar vocal stylings of Bean and Irwin, it might be hard to recognize End Time as a Freakwater album at all.
The fuller, thicker textures of the larger ensemble has several salutary effects. For one thing, drummer Steve Goulding and bassist Gay are in perfect sync, accentuating the beat and guiding the vocals and instrumental solos into a more rigorous and consistent respect for each song’s meter. Further, pedal steel/electric guitarist Eric Heywood’s delicate, minimalist approach and golden tone soften the edges of the sound, complementing the more relaxed, rounded vocal tones Irwin and Bean bring to the recording. Those who enthused about the band’s “front porch” aesthetic may be dismayed by the changes End Time displays, but others will find the music a more congenial setting for the slow waltzes that make up almost half the album. There are some throwbacks to the sparer, acoustic sound of Freakwater’s earlier albums — “Sick, Sick, Sick” features nothing more than slide guitar chords for backup — but in general, there’s a new level of complexity and sophistication to the backup, and it sounds good.
The songs themselves, too, sound more mature, at least in their construction. Bean, or Irwin, or both — there are no individual credits on the album, though press materials that accompanied it state that each wrote half of the album’s dozen cuts — apparently discovered the III chord (think of the one behind “man” in Tammy Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man”), and it’s put to good use throughout the album, underlining the more orthodox country feel of waltzes such as “My History” and “Just Like You”. Still, the writing retains the distinctive habit Freakwater has of mismatching lyric and melodic phrases; where country tradition almost guarantees a one-to-one correspondence of the two, Bean and Irwin’s songs frequently contain lyric phrases that extend across natural pauses in melody.
That’s a jarring, disorienting kind of construction, at least to ears habituated to orthodox country simplicity, and it reinforces the women’s frequently elliptical approach, one that is consistent with their previous work. Add to that the close miking of the vocals, the often slippery enunciation Bean and Irwin bring to their singing, the use of octave harmonies in which syllables aren’t timed the same way by both singers, and the more than occasional burial of vocals behind instrumental textures, and it can be difficult sometimes to figure out just what the hell a song is about. Perhaps that’s the intent; certainly the songs give off powerful emotional auras, as words and phrases slip in and out of range, and while they may not be comprehensible, they nevertheless evoke a deep feeling of anxiety and unease, even when the subject matter is ostensibly comical, as in “Dog Gone Wrong”.
If that’s what Freakwater is after, then End Time must be counted as a genuine success, especially insofar as it is achieved in a musical setting far less likely to provoke dismissal by listeners more attuned to country traditions of close, tuneful harmony. I doubt I’ll ever be a big fan, but this album has convinced me, as none before has, that Irwin and Bean have something to say musically that’s worth hearing.