Formed in Kentucky in 1989 by Janet Bean and Catherin Irwin, releasing their debut in the same year, the alt-country outfit Freakwater were prolific through the 90s, releasing a further seven albums over the course of the decade. However, the last time they got together in the studio was for 2005’s Thinking Of You, the two founders working on other, individual projects. However, the 20th anniversary reissue of 1993’s Feels Like The Third Time saw them reconvene and take the band back out on the road. During this time they started writing again, eventually gathering to rehearse and record what would become their first album in over a decade. Along with Anna Krippenstapel on violin, guitarist Morgan Geer (who also contributes the track Missionfield with its southern blues air and soulful finale), Neal Argabright on drums and pump organ and regular bassist Dave Gay, it features contributions from longtime collaborator Jim Elkington on pedal steel and mandola from, Bad Seeds alumnus Warren Ellis on fiddle and flute, and cellist Sarah Balliet.
Musically, it’s not far removed from yesteryear, the girls’ harmonies steeped in southern moss, Appalachian colours and the old school influence of the Carter Family still firmly nailed to the mast. It opens in moody, haunting style with What The People Want, fiddle scraping a spooked ambience as they sing about a woman being murdered and her body thrown down the well to a repeated refrain of ‘who’s baby are you?”
It doesn’t get much cheerier, the songs generally addressing affliction or death, as on the Carteresque vision of the hereafter Take Me With You, the farmland destruction of the acoustic wearied waltz Bolshevik and Bollweevil where Irwin talks of a sky black like caviar and the narrator exhorts “come on home if you can find it”, the “bed of betrayal” in the slide coloured The Asp and the Albatross and, a dark marital breakdown twist (“when the vow breaks”) on the nursery rhyme, the ominous throb of Down Will Come Baby, the tree shaken by Evan Patterson’s slashing wah wah guitar.
Country noir also hangs heavy over the brooding slow paced Fall of Sleep with its twanged guitar, swirling strings and, nodding to the story of the album title, talk of “the seven times your word is brandished” as the song ends with Bean’s voice soaring in gospel stridency on a plea to “deliver us mercy until dawn.”
Things move to Texas border town territory for the interwoven harmonies of the lovely, if lyrically obscure, Skinning Knee Bone while Number One With A Bullet waltzes through the honky tonks with death again on its arm (“tell them how the ocean sounds and how a man can drown tied to the tide till the earth drags you down”) and the loss heavy Memory Vendor ebbs and flows on a languorous pedal steel burnished sway.
The album closes with Ghost Song, a soulful late night slow waltz slightly evocative of a bluesier McGarrigles and featuring some tasty guitar noodling from Geer, Irwin singing “if that’s the best that you can do I won’t wait up for you so long.” On the contrary, this album’s been worth waiting up for ten years.
Review by: Mike Davies
Released 12 Feb via Bloodshot
Order it via Amazon
Photo Credit: Tim Furnish