Sharps & Flats is a daily music review in Salon Magazine

Published January 23, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

I figure if alternative country bands are going to belabor antique musical forms, the least they can do is attach lyrical content more devious and inventive than, say, my-lover-left-me, the-Man-screwed-me and the-bottle-let-me-down. I have often been disappointed in this expectation (most recently by flat-out stupid Whiskeytown). Born before country went "insurgent," Freakwater has flown the flag of righteous imagination for going on five albums. This string band's elemental bluegrass/honky-tonk will not shift a person's axis. But a nip of their atomic word power may sear the throat of any blissful innocent thinking to sing along.

Throughout "Springtime," Freakwater's latest, singer-guitarists Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean complicate country music's standard issues from evil to workers' revolt. "One big union!" they shout in rousing harmony, before shrugging "won't help us now." In these days of temp work and independent contracting, "which side are you on's got more angles than the Pentagon." On the vinegar-soaked "Louisville Lip," Irwin shrewdly mixes romantic folk tropes with the local legend (and lingo) of fellow Louisville, Ky., native Muhammad Ali -- who consigned his Olympic gold medal to the Ohio River after a diner refused him service.

Irwin's practical earthiness, of both perspective and voice, complements the silvery soprano musings of Bean. When Bean steps to the fore, she comes with trick questions: Would you love me without condition? asks the sinuous "Binding Twine." "Either way," she warns, "there's something that you are bound to lose." Bean continues to ponder personal accountability through the slow waltz of "Jesus Year," refusing any solace from "above." Their harmonies as sour as the Carter Family's, Freakwater are still harder in outlook: As Irwin sasses, "Heaven is for the weak at heart."

For all its intricate darkness, the album never gets dour. There's deep pleasure in the way Bean and Irwin curl their voices 'round each other, like the old friends they are. And the supporting cast of bass, fiddle, banjo and mandolin players (including Max Johnston, last of Wilco) hits these old changes with enough energy to keep the proceedings outside a museum. A couple songs -- the car-love "Scamp" and the foxy "Washed in the Blood" -- are plain raucous. I'd say "Springtime" was aptly named: It concentrates on life -- and living at once ferociously and responsibly -- more than Freakwater's past efforts. "You've got to hold onto the earth/while she spins you like a tilt-a-whirl," taunts Bean, "and hum the ringing in your ears."

By Terri Sutton

Terri Sutton is a Minneapolis writer whose work has appeared in Spin, the Village Voice and the Minneapolis City Pages.

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