With a UK tour on the horizon, here’s the history
Freakwater could never be described as prolific, with just eight albums in twenty seven years. Released earlier this year, Scheherazade, their first album in over a decade, and debut for Bloodshot Records, has earned widespread critical acclaim; highlighting the sisterly harmonies of Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin and songs that reflect a sepia-tinted alternative and gothic vision of America, Freakwater fully deserve their legendary reputation.
Anchored around those fragile and compelling harmonies of Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin and the subdued, oracular bass playing of Dave Gay, Freakwater’s utterly unique sound is distilled from many sources. There’s the elemental ache and loss in the soil and limestone of Kentucky, the songs and struggles that passed over the Atlantic from the British Isles centuries ago. There’s the energy and freedom in the ratty punk clubs of Louisville and Chicago at a time when rules and formalities were meant to be ignored. At once bluegrass, blues, folk, and country, it is also none of them. Freakwater is not dealing in historical artefacts. Rather, it is a product of two voices intertwined with one another for over three decades. This sound might be best summarised as Appalachian soul.
In 2014, Irwin and Bean (along with long-time collaborator Jim Elkington) convened for a mini-tour celebrating the 20th anniversary of their landmark album Feels Like The Third Time. Inspired by a rekindled musical spark, the two wrote songs throughout that summer and Scheherazade was recorded and mixed that fall at LaLa Land Studio in Louisville, Kentucky with Kevin Ratterman, My Morning Jacket’s long-time engineer, the first time the band had recorded an album outside of Chicago. The slower pace of Louisville – what Janet calls “the Kentucky crawl” – and an extended cast of talented local musicians, proved perfect elements for developing their new songs. Freakwater’s collaborators on Scheherazade include James Elkington (Tweedy, Horse’s Ha, Eleventh Dream Day) on pedal steel and mandola,Evan Patterson (Young Widows, Jaye Jayle) on electric guitars, Warren Ellis (Dirty Three, Nick Cave) on fiddle and alto flute, Sarah Balliet (Murder By Death) on cello, and Morgan Geer (Drunken Prayer) on electric guitar.
With its generations old deep harmonies and horrors, ‘What the People Want’, the album’s eerie opening track, captures a preternatural ability to meld the alluring and the gruesome, the beauty in the murder ballad. Driven by banjo, Moog, and Ellis’s fiddle, the song recasts traditional narratives to include contemporary atrocities. The single, ‘The Asp and the Albatross’, might lull the listener with its Laurel Canyon vibe, but further down the beach Cleopatra and the Ancient Mariner are swinging side by side sipping poison. ‘Take Me with You’ is a song that could have been sung 300 years ago, and could be sung 300 years from now. It’s a straight ahead Appalachian death trip – a simple, sparse melodic treasure. Pure Freakwater.
Stretching themselves in the studio as never before, Freakwater provides long-time listeners with thrilling surprises. ‘Down Will Come Baby’ is an uneasy lullaby fuelled by Patterson’s wah-wah guitar and Catherine’s perfectly unhinged banjo line. ‘Velveteen Matador’, with its buoyant and bright guitars (think Dusty Springfield meets Buffalo Springfield, at the grooviest intersection of folk-rock and Memphis country-soul) is a cautionary tale of a darkness to come. The secular doom-gospel of ‘Number One with a Bullet’ is, in that way only Freakwater can pull off, simultaneously uplifting and devastating.
FREAKWATER · UK & IRELAND TOUR · OCTOBER 2016
Fri 7 London Oslo, Hackney
Sun 9 Bristol The Tunnels
Tue 11 Salford The Eagle Inn
Wed 12 Glasgow Broadcast
Thu 13 Newcastle upon Tyne The Cluny 2
Fri 14 Waterford Phil Grimes Pub
Sat 15 Kilkenny Cleere’s Bar & Theatre
Sun 16 Dublin Whelan’s