Release Date: Feb 5, 2016
Record label: Bloodshot
Genre(s): Country, Folk, Pop/Rock
Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin have been recording and performing as Freakwater for nearly 30 years. They were some of the first musicians to explicitly marry the bluegrass aesthetic with the punk rock ethos. Their songs embrace the American working class aesthetic with no smirk of irony, but without the blind worship of the recent convert, either.
Freakwater's messed-up but glorious harmonies have always been the key to their sound, and if they suggested the lost members of the Carter Family far gone on cheap booze on 1995's Feels Like the Third Time, they still sound essentially the same way 21 years down the line, which only points to the bent timelessness of their body of work. 2016's Scheherazade may be the first album in over a decade from Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean, but the dour yet perceptive storytelling of their lyrics and the wobbly sincerity of their vocals suggest no more than a few months passed between 2005's Thinking of You and this set. From the grim abuse of "What the People Want" to the homey but troubling visions of "Ghost Song," Freakwater leave no doubt they're still living in the same fallen world that's always been their home, and they evoke a difficult past and a similarly blighted present while facing it all with the quirky grin of a confirmed cynic.
When Freakwater made their first recordings in the late '80s, they set a template that would serve them well for the next 27 years: a darkly austere country sound rooted in the sisterly harmonies of Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean. Making good use of a minimal backing band—often just their own guitars and an upright bass, with flourishes of pedal steel and electric guitar—they updated the downcast vocals of the Carter Family and wrote songs set in some alternate-reality American past. It seemed like there was a ghost or a corpse on every album.
Scheherazade is Freakwater’s first album in 11 years, and first with Bloodshot Records, a departure from their longstanding relationship with Thrill Jockey. Bloodshot is in line with Freakwater stylistically in a way that Thrill Jockey never quite has been, and that cohesive musical aesthetic really shows on Scheherazade. Freakwater sounds, more than ever, exactly like themselves.
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.
The title of Freakwater's first album in more than 10 years, "Scheherazade" (Bloodshot), name-checks the Arabic storyteller and future queen of "One Thousand and One Nights" fame. You won't find Sinbad, Ali Baba or Aladdin mentioned in the lyrics, but singers Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean are adept storytellers, and they know how to spin yarns about resilience and fortitude in the face of life's innate cruelty. Yes, Scheherazade, who was fighting for her life each of those 1,001 nights, would've understood.
Freakwater — Scheherazade (Bloodshot)Photo by Tim FurnishMothers, lock up your babies. Freakwater has made a new album, and anytime that happens the infant mortality rate goes up. But maybe an early death is not a bad thing, lest your progeny grow up to be the sort of murderers that perpetrate the action in “What The People Want.” Catherine Irwin, the lower voiced of Freakwater’s two singer-songwriter-guitarists, opens the album recounting a savage bloodletting over Warren Ellis’s eerie fiddling.