For its latest video, alt-country band Freakwater enlisted the help of director and animator Kathleen Judge, who regularly works with musicians such as Neko Case and Calexico. The song, “What the People Want,” tackles gender-based violence and injustice through haunting animations and dark color palettes.
Freakwater returns with songs that feel old and grim and magical
by Kenny Berkowitz
Thirty years after their first gig, playing open mic at a strip club, Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin are still making music together as Freakwater. Scheherazade, their first album in 11 years, is at least as good as anything they’ve ever done, and probably better. There’s a handful of electric instruments—guitar, bass, pedal steel, moog, and piano, mostly played by Louisville friends—but the spotlight is never far from Bean (guitar, mandola) and Irwin (guitar, banjo), their instruments entwined, their voices matched, and their songs raw, modal, and harsh as a slap across the face.
The album starts with songs about a gang rape (“What the People Want”), a sailboat on a windless sea (“The Asp and the Albatross”), and a farm that’s blown to dust (“Bolshevik and Boll Weevil”). It closes with an apparition of a woman with long hair streaming behind her (“Ghost Song”). In between, there’s plenty of sea, rain, and prophesying about days when tears “will rise to fill the skies and dark clouds will hide the sun.”
The songs feel old, old and grim as Appalachia, stirring up memories of legendary bluegrass singer Hazel Dickens and her guitarist Alice Gerrard, who found a plainspoken harmony in the hardness of women’s lives. That’s how good these songs are, and that’s how far Freakwater has come over these many years, creating timeless folk while staying true to its punk roots. Like the mythic Persian queen Scheherazade, Bean and Irwin weave these haunted tales of love and betrayal. And like Scheherazade, they tell stories as if their lives depended on them, as if there’s nothing else that can get them through the night.