This Carter Family-inspired duo began as a side project for Eleventh Dream Day drummer/vocalist Janet Beveridge Bean and childhood friend (and fellow Kentucky native) Catherine Irwin, a songwriter who’d done cover art for Dream Day albums. By the early ’90s, Freakwater had helped spark a revived interest among some of the pair’s indie-rock contemporaries in early county, folk and bluegrass music. Bean and Irwin’s tasteful devotion to rural music on Freakwater’s first two albums encouraged post-punk artists from Bad Livers to Uncle Tupelo to experiment, tongues not in cheeks, with mixing contemporary concerns and traditional country styles.
Though Bean is nominally the duo’s star, it’s Irwin’s lyrics and husky croon that ground most of the tunes on Freakwater; Bean’s higher, slightly off-key harmonies flutter above the weepy acoustic foundations, giving the songs an edgy tension. Although the opening track, “Miner’s Song,” has a clear political bent, the album is filled mostly with heartache and tragedy. From the slow-paced “Lonesome Sound” (a Bean lead vocal) to the beer-stained “Family Tradition,” Freakwater is often difficult but always rewarding.
The mood isn’t much different on Dancing Underwater (later combined with the first album on CD). If anything, Irwin is even more of a grievous angel, penning titles like “Your Goddamn Mouth,” “No, That Can Never Be” and “A Song You Could Cry For” (“Desperately seeking more and more confusion/You sink your nails into the back of an illusion”). With slightly better production and improved musicianship by some of the same people who played on the debut-Jon Alexander Spiegel (Dobro, pedal steel, banjo), Dave Gay (upright bass)-and newcomer John Rice on fiddle, mandolin and pedal steel, Dancing Underwater is more satisfying than Freakwater. And the cover choices — from such traditionals as “Rank Strangers” and “Selfishness in Man” to Billy Sherrill’s gorgeous “Wild and Blue,” Bill Monroe’s allegorical “The Little Girl and the Dreadful Snake” and Merle Travis’ coal-mining standard, “Dark as a Dungeon” — are impeccable.
Feels Like the Third Time gets a boost in audio clarity, courtesy of Liz Phair producer Brad Wood. In addition to the richer sound, Irwin and Bean seem more confident with their material. Replacing Spiegel and Rice with fiddler/mandolin player Lisa Marsicek and adding guitarist Brian Dunn, the two women (and Gay, now an official member of the trio) find themselves in a first-rate country-folk band. Save for the charmingly wavering vocals, the album trades the primitivist feel of old Carter Family recordings for a more contemporary non-Nashville country sound. From Irwin’s tragic originals (“Drunk Friend”) and Bean’s improved work (“Sleeping on Hold”) to great cover choices — from Nick Lowe’s “You Make Me” to Woody Guthrie’s “Little Shoes” to a hilariously subtle feminist update of Conway Twitty’s “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” — this fine album holds out much promise for Freakwater’s brand of acoustic country.
Old Paint fulfills that promise in spades. Again produced by Wood, the songs are better, the performances stronger and the harmonies more natural sounding than ever. Where once it seemed as though the women might be using old-timey naïveté to cover up for vocal insecurities, it’s clear here that they have strong musical identities of their own. Irwin puts her entire being into songs like “Smoking Daddy” with Bean wailing the accompanying vocals and hitting every note — though not with such precision that it sounds clinical. In fact, there’s nothing clinical about a line like “there’s nothing so sure as a razor blade above your wrist,” which comes behind the cry of pedal steel in “Gone to Stay,” an exquisitely plaintive song about the futility of all aspects of salvation. Whether singing high harmonies (“White Rose”) or lead vocals (“Out of This World”), Bean’s voice has taken on a delicate, Emmylou Harris-like purity. Irwin again wrote most of the songs, and this time the cool cover choices simply add spice to an already very satisfying original recipe.