Freakwater: Scheherazade


Videos by American Songwriter

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Anyone who thinks Freakwater might have diluted their Appalachian soul sound since the last release over a decade ago only has to push play on this long awaited return. The eerie fiddle and banjo driven “What the People What” describes in brutal detail a gang murder and possible rape with unflinching intensity. Welcome back songwriter-singers Janet Bean, Catherine Irwin and bassist Dave Gay.

Decamping from longtime label home base Drag City (where their primarily acoustic, backwoods, twisted folk/country was somewhat of an anomaly) to the more musically sympathetic Bloodshot imprint for their eighth release is a logical move. Irwin and Bean pen all but one of the dozen songs and even though the cast of supporting musicians includes such unlikely instrumentation as Moog and alto flute, the ominous themes and unsettling rural approach remains unchanged. The lead singers’ harmonies shift from gorgeous to creepy, the latter mirroring themes of tunes such as “Down Will Come Baby,” a revisualization on the “Rock a Bye Baby” nursery rhyme both gripping and poetic with the opening line “crows are in the crook of the pin oak tree,” leading into a closing rave up of wah-wah guitar flourish.

Death and revenge is seldom far from the table with tracks such as “Number One with a Bullet,” “Ghost Song” and “Falls of Sleep” obliquely involved in those topics. But, as usual, the words are vague enough for various interpretations and there seems to be portentous religious strands intricately and subtly threaded into some of the material. As the disc’s tale-telling title implies, these are story songs but ones with murky lyrics beautifully penned and performed with a sense of dread and doom similar to the work of 16 Horsepower.

Some glimmers of light appear amidst the gloom, especially is the shimmering “Take Me With You” stripped down to just a softly strumming acoustic guitar and the two lead voices. But generally, even when the music is slightly country/folk pop-worthy as on “Velveteen Matador,” the concepts remain shrouded in mystery that pricks at the corners of the dimmer areas of your imagination.

Longtime fans who have patiently waited for this resurgence will be thrilled with results that gently tug at the boundaries of their established sound. But even listeners new to the Freakwater experience can start here and work backwards through a rich catalog dedicated to the darker roots of Americana.

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