Freakwater channels Scheherazade, Game Theory gets the retrospective treatment.
Don’t let some muscle man in a sleeveless shirt with a headset microphone and pinchfront straw cowboy hat tell you what country music is today. Make no mistake—much of modern country music is essentially over-produced, auto-tuned pop music with an accent and a little twang.
In the early ‘90s, some well-meaning but misguided folks started using the term “alternative country” to distinguish certain efforts from mainstream country, but using that term is like giving up on country music. There was something special and nebulous percolating, though, with artists drawing from traditional country and folk, informed by underground rock, and it’s safe to place Freakwater as a leader in this pantheon.
The Louisville/Chicago band Freakwater, led by the duo of Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean (also a vocalist and drummer in Eleventh Dream Day), has been around since the ‘80s, and after a long history with the label Thrill Jockey, it has moved to Bloodshot Records for its 8th album, Scheherazade, which comes over a decade after its previous full-length release.
Freakwater has several defining qualities that are evident on the excellent new album, including using arrangements that are never cluttered, with every instrument heard and with a purpose. This is true even when things get complicated, like on “Down Will Come Baby”, with one electric guitar that suggests a spaghetti western and another electric guitar with psychedelic wah-wah freakout licks, standing alongside an unflappable banjo.
Freakwater’s two most prominent distinguishing features, though, are Irwin and Bean’s vocal harmonizing and its storytelling prowess. Irwin’s voice is bold and raw, absolutely oozing with a world-weariness and textured with grit and grain, with the ability to convey a profound sadness when necessary. Bean’s higher-pitched voice is more conventionally pretty than Irwin’s, with a controlled vibrato and the power to belt out potent moments, like the heart-stopping, dramatic finish of “Falls of Sleep.” It’s fascinating to hear how the dissimilar voices play off each other, since they don’t blend together like chocolate syrup in milk, and this contrast is in the core of Freakwater’s essence.
The group’s vivid storytelling is another strength, and it’s fitting that Scheherazade takes its name from the Persian queen from One Thousand and One Nights who told captivating stories to postpone her execution. Turmoil is prominent, from memorable tunes like “Memory Vendor” with a waltz time signature, or the graphic “Missionfield” with the lines, “Hurricane Katrina blew your mind halfway to hell / Police picked him up off the streets of Slidell.”
This is compelling, unpretentious country music, unconcerned with making a slick, commercial sound; after all, there’s no compression in heaven.
“Right away I discovered that not everybody ‘got’ this band...for some people it was just information overload.” So said Mitch Easter, the celebrated producer and musician, about Game Theory, a cult favorite in the ‘80s that combined both gentle and biting power-pop, like Big Star with a new-wave twist.
The group was always slightly off-center, using oblique lyrics with odd references and carried by front man Scott Miller’s atypical mid-to-high-pitched voice, which could be kinetic or willowy, without a shred of detachment.
This 2-CD remastered edition of Lolita Nation, originally released in 1987, is welcome, yet bittersweet. Out of print for well over two decades, the double-album is considered the band’s most ambitious, capping the band’s peak years which also yielded the superb albums Real Nighttime and The Big Shot Chronicles. However, one guesses that the reissue campaign might not have happened if Miller had not taken his own life in April 2013, a few months before Game Theory was planning to reunite.
This writer has played and replayed a cassette dub of Lolita Nation for over twenty-five years, and there is always the fear, when revisiting a beloved album from one’s youth, that it hasn’t stood the test of time. That wasn’t the case, and if anything, it sounds better now than ever.
The second CD of bonus material features demos, live tracks, radio sessions, and several covers from David Bowie and others, including post-punk icons like Joy Division and Public Image Ltd. Frankly, most of this material is merely fine and probably won’t get played nearly as often as the proper album, although a few notable tracks include the original, unedited version of “Chardonnay,” a bare-bones version of “We Love You Carol and Alison,” and a raucous rough mix of “The Waist and the Knees,” one of the group’s most spirited and exhilarating songs.
In the booklet, former collaborators provide amusing, enlightening and touching remembrances, providing insight into Miller’s aesthetic and also glimpses of the ups and downs of a touring band.
The invigorating style of Lolita Nation with healthy doses of meaty riffs and catchy motifs expressed a joy of aesthetic freedom—individually, the tracks followed rock/pop structures, but strung together with connecting twists, the album clearly aspired for greatness. And that it managed to succeed over the duration of a double-album is even more remarkable—if this is information overload, then information overload has never sounded so good.