Janet Bean: Not the weakest link
Maybe Janet Bean learned a lesson from Louisville homeboy Muhammad Ali — her first solo album floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee. The element of sonic surprise draws the listener in, as arrangements benefit from the textures of jazz pianist Jim Baker, multi-instrumentalist Fred Lonberg-Holm on cello and cornet, Jon Spiegel on steel and other guitars, and the soulful vocals of Kelly Hogan.
Yet within such rich, sumptuous and sophisticated interplay, the material packs a lacerating punch, with the song-cycle working its way through the aftermath of a marital split and what Bean variously describes (usually with a laugh) as “boy troubles” and “my relationship nightmares.” In some ways, making a solo album was cathartic, even therapeutic for the woman known for her harmonizing in Freakwater and drumming in Eleventh Dream Day; in other respects, it was like a rite of passage.
“The act of doing it was huge for me,” she explains. “I’m nearing 40 [a milestone she’ll reach next February], and as long as anyone I’ve been in a band with can remember, I’ve been threatening to do my own thing. But I’ve been super lucky with the people I’ve been able to play with and have felt really good about the things I’ve been a part of. So I was afraid a solo album would reveal it was those people and not me that was great, that I’d be reading something that said, ‘Well, now we know where the weak link is.'”
Not here she won’t, for even the most devoted fans of Bean’s other bands are likely to find revelation in Dragging Wonder Lake. For two decades, she’s been an integral cog in Chicago’s explosive Eleventh Dream Day, where the creative tension with guitarist (and former husband) Rick Rizzo causes sparks to fly like an inspired cross between Television and Neil Young’s Crazy Horse.
In alt-country circles, she has attained a higher profile through her Freakwater collaboration with Catherine Irwin, her friend since their teenage days in Louisville, with the music finding a common denominator between the Appalachian purity of the Carter Family and the stripped-down, no-frills ethos of punk rock.
Her solo debut — released April 8 on Thrill Jockey Records under the name Janet Bean & the Concertina Wire — proceeds from a decidedly different template. “I’ve always dreamed of hearing my music on a grander scale, like Burt Bacharach or something, and just about my favorite all-time record is Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks,” she reveals. “It’s thematically dark and has all those jazz guys playing on it, and it’s just everything to me. I wanted to make a record that had that kind of element to it, that kind of skewed take on a pop tune. So that was my idea going in, and all those guys are just so damned talented that I didn’t have to tell them anything. It just came together.”
The songs themselves come as no surprise to those who know her best. “It’s a daring album, but it’s in the vein of everything she’s been writing since I met her in 1983,” says Rizzo. “I think Cathy and Janet’s solo records go to the extremes of their input into Freakwater. Cathy’s record [last year’s Cut Yourself A Switch] is stark and Appalachian, and Janet likes to bring complexity into whatever she does. She’s always surprised me with the structures of her songs, and she’s a great arranger.”
Produced and engineered by John McEntire (of Chicago’s The Sea And Cake), the album shows little allegiance to the lo-fi, indie-rock aesthetic. With its southern gospel groove, horns, and a harmony chorus punctuated by Baker’s piano, “All Fools Day” sounds like Delaney & Bonnie with Thelonious Monk rather than Leon Russell at the keyboard. Among contemporary artists, only Robin Holcomb (whom Bean says she has never heard) explores a dynamic similar to that of Wonder Lake, reconciling folkish simplicity and vocal understatement with musicianship that pushes the envelope well beyond traditional strictures of category.
“Janet was definitely aspiring to have bigger arrangements, and she chose really interesting people to do it with,” says her Eleventh Dream Day bandmate Douglas McCombs (thanked on Wonder Lake for “insightful musical direction”). “Jim and Fred are never going to fall back into cliches. They put a lot of thought into what they play, and they pull it away from what you’d expect to hear.”
The most recent and most ambitious Freakwater album, 1999’s End Time, proved transitional for Bean. Irwin had previously written the majority of the band’s material, but Bean contributed half the songs on End Time, many of them addressing the end of her marriage to Rizzo. They expanded the arrangements as well, employing a drummer for the first time as well as recruiting Baker on piano and Lonberg-Holm for string arrangements.
“The thing about Freakwater that I really, really love is singing with Catherine,” says Bean. “I’m really proud of End Time, but it was a difficult record for us to make in the studio, emotionally, a struggle in some respects. And while Catherine’s always been great about accepting the songs that I write, Freakwater has a stronger identity for her. On my solo record, I wanted to take some of the songs I might have given to Freakwater and just do what I wanted with them and see what happens.”
“I think Janet’s album is great, because I really love her voice, and this is such a good vehicle for it,” says Irwin. “She was able to have songs that are a lot more complex musically, and her voice is more in the front. A lot of the songs are quieter, because she doesn’t have to yell to be as loud as me.”
As a divorced mother with a young son and a day job to pay the bills, Bean finds herself in a different position than Irwin, who would love to tour a lot more often (and recorded her solo album to do so). Yet they anticipate reuniting as Freakwater for shows and recording sessions this year, in the wake of their divergent solo projects.
“To me, it’s a lot more fun to sing with another person,” says Irwin. “When I hear Janet’s record, I find myself singing what would be my parts. And she probably does the same thing when she listens to mine.”
“I’m really proud of what she did with her record, and we’re both very supportive of each other, though we’re very competitive in some respects — like who’s got the highest heels on or something,” says Bean with a laugh.
As a songwriter, Bean says she envies those (including Irwin) who can be more abstract or allegorical, where her own material is more like open-heart surgery. Dragging Wonder Lake presents a chronological song-cycle, sequenced in the order the material was written, that begins with everything falling apart, proceeds through a minefield of emotional engagement, and ends with the possibility of pulling a life back together again. “These songs are for the Purple Heart,” she writes in the album’s dedication.
“It’s a record about conflict,” she explains, while hesitating to get more specific than she does in the pointedly personal material. “I feel a little nervous that I’ll cross a line and say something that I’ll wish I hadn’t. At the heart of the matter, there’s no blame I’m trying to convey. It’s just the dance people do with each other, and the lies they tell, and the arena in which they chose to live out their battles. People just seem to be so desperate, myself definitely included.”
In the midst of songs that detail the battle scars of love’s weary soldier (from “Cutters Dealers Cheaters”: “Pity picks until she bleeds/Pulls it back and then you’ll see/Blood and bone showing through”), Bean and musicians perform some radical deconstruction on a couple of inspired covers. The swirling rendition of Randy Newman’s “The God Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)” adds an otherworldly dimension to what could well be the bleakest lyric ever written, while Neil Young’s “Soldier” reinforces the metaphorical theme that threads through Bean’s own songs.
“After I’d bought an old mono hi-fi, I started going to thrift stores just to get more records, and I ended up with all these ’70s singer-songwriter albums that people had gotten rid of,” she says. “While I’d known and loved a lot of Randy Newman songs, the bitterness of this was just so overwhelming. And then with ‘Soldier’, Rick and I both got into playing guitar via Neil Young songbooks, and that’s a place where I feel really comfortable.”
Searching for a band name to credit the musicians, she was reading a story about a naval base employing the concertina type of barbed wire as protective fencing. “I liked the idea of Concertina Wire, because it kind of sounds musical, but is actually prickly and deadly,” she says.
A similar ambiguity informs the Wonder Lake of the album’s title. Located in northern Illinois, at the outer reaches of Chicago’s suburban sprawl, it had long been mythologized within Bean’s family as the place where her parents first met.
“When they’d talk about their first date on Wonder Lake, it always sounded so magical to me,” she explains. “Now it’s like a lake that’s on its last gasp, the one up there that hasn’t been taken over by Chicagoans with their weekend homes. It needs to be dredged thoroughly in order to come alive again. And if you’re dragging it, you’re digging up all the dirt.”
Though the progression of the material puts the listener through an emotional wringer, the album ends on an affirmative note, with the buoyant “My Little Brigadoon” suggesting early Beach Boys or Go-Go’s. Yet even here, the cheeriness is conditional and open to interpretation.
“I was so tired of wallowing in this darkness, and now I’m waiting to see if this happy ending comes true,” says Bean. “But Catherine said it sounded very sinister. It’s as if I’d just taken off the head of someone, buried the body in the backyard and now I could begin again.”
With that, she laughs last and best.