Release Date: Sep 18, 2012
Record label: Thrill Jockey
Genre(s): Country, Folk, Singer/Songwriter, Americana, Pop/Rock, Neo-Traditional Folk, International, Appalachian, North American Traditions
Some things take time if you want them to be good -- sourdough bread, bourbon, wine, and music from Catherine Irwin. Irwin's second solo album, Little Heater, arrives a decade after her solo debut (2002's Cut Yourself a Switch), and seven years after she last recorded with Janet Beveridge Bean in Freakwater (2005's Thinking of You), but if Little Heater sounds modest on the surface, it's emotionally powerful and deeply moving music that shows her deliberate pace as a songwriter reaps impressive rewards. Little Heater was produced and recorded by Tara Jane O'Neil, with members of the band Ida providing accompaniment, and the collaboration is an inspired one -- while the music is more artful and adventurous than the stark acoustic backings of Freakwater's best-known work, there's a spare, gentle approach that suits these songs perfectly, and O'Neil strikes a lovely balance between the painterly approach of the musicians and the rough-hewn beauty of Irwin's voice.
Generally speaking, it’s probably unfair to compare an artist’s solo work to his or her full-band efforts. I know this, and yet I couldn’t stop doing exactly that when I first dove into Catherine Irwin’s long-awaited second solo record, Little Heater (Thrill Jockey). Irwin is a key player in the influential alt-country band Freakwater, known for the gorgeous vocal chemistry exhibited by Irwin and fellow singer Janet Bean.
Freakwater frontwoman Irwin has gone a decade between solo releases (this is only her second), not a template for anyone expecting to further a music career. But that never seemed to bother her. So, true to her impulses, this stripped down set is raw and powerful and non-commercial, even in an indie definition of that word. Producer Tara Jane O’Neill and the band Ida provide sparse yet intensely stark backing to 13 originals that could have been written anytime over the past 100 years.
Catherine Irwin’s Little Heater is an sophomore album many years in the making, though it wouldn’t sound too fundamentally different from a re-mastered June Carter collection. Irwin, who was an original pioneer of alt-country as half of the ‘90s Chicago duo Freakwater, has played a main role in just two albums since the turn of the century: Freakwater’s last LP in 2005 and her 2002 solo debut, Cut Yourself a Switch. As we now know, “country” has become an exponentially broader word since Freakwater’s 1989 debut, but 23 years later, Irwin has opted to hang back.
One thing that makes the history of country music endlessly intriguing is the largely unknown figures that wrote songs made famous by others. In the age of alt-country, almost every artist has the potential to be one of these, if anyone in Nashville cared to pay attention. Catherine Irwin's work has been called "alt-country" as long as the term has existed and has remained one of its key voices.