Freakwater – Old Paint
Late to this party, having missed the preceding three long-players, I have only overheard conversations for background. The tenor of which seems to be that Freakwater are somehow less authentic an expression of country phrasing because Janet Beveridge Bean drums and sings with alt-rockers Eleventh Dream Day, and that their songwriting (by partner Catherine Irwin) needed work.
Well hush up, y’all, and listen as Ms. Irwin begins: “I wasn’t drinking to forget / I was drinking to remember / How I once might have looked / Through the eyes of a stranger.” And then, halfway through the second stanza, Ms. Bean’s voice twines around the harmony like the lover’s vines at the end of “Barbra Allen”. Maybe they weren’t this good before, but I’d bet the house (if I had one) on those two voices, and the garage (in which I live, for the present) on this set of songs.
They come originally from Louisville, those two (Bean now lives in Chicago), augmented by Dave Gay (bass) and newcomer Bob Egan (pedal steel, national guitar), and the minor, mournful joy of bluegrass phrasing comes naturally. Bluegrass — and perhaps this is what Bill Monroe intended — is properly a kind of white blues, an untutored hill-cry bent around the sounds of English, Irish, Scottish folk standards, some of that bagpipe drone carrying through the top of the vocals, a kind of wailing that cannot be taught, only felt.
“There’s nothing so pure / As the kindness of an atheist,” they sing (and if that line won’t testify on its own to some kind of greatness, then….), and these are pure songs: Honest, forthright, brung up straight down the middle of a gravel road and taught to look you right in the eye (before spitting on your shoes). And there is nothing so pure as the sound of these two voices caught up in the same tear.