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Freakwater: Thinking of You

Released on Thrill Jockey records, 09/13/05

To the untrained ear, an initial play-through of Freakwater's newest album, Thinking Of You, sounds like pure country music, not the alt-country that it is purported to be. It bears all the trappings of an Appalachian folk session; plaintively sweet Carter-family harmonies, melodies that amble along like a backwoods road, and the expected medley of pedal steel guitar, dobro and fiddle. Get past the old-time associations though, and the modern sensibilities of the Kentucky duo slowly reveal themselves.

While Catherine Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean write moonshine-soaked waltzes as well as anyone on the Opry circuit, the acerbic, anti-establishment flavor of songs such as "Buckets of Oil" and the artfully applied touches of distorted guitar hint at their early punk-rock days. Freakwater fans take a certain amount of pride in knowing that the band was one of the first on the alt-country scene. They released their self-titled debut LP in 1989, a year before Uncle Tupelo released their seminal album, No Depression.

Like most of Irwin's songs, the unprepossessing title of the band's ninth album is loaded with dark irony. The floor-stomping "So Strange", which could have been performed by Dolly Parton, is so up-tempo that it's easy to miss the tortured lyrics. "Jewel", a song about a suicide, is softened by the stunning beauty of Bean's sandy-sweet voice layered over Irwin's deeper, watery warble. Thrill Jockey label-mates Caliphone provide a strong, lush backdrop for Irwin and Bean with a bevy of string instruments, horns, organs and a musical saw.

While both women have taken time off to pursue solo careers and other musical projects (Bean in Eleventh Dream Day, most notably), Freakwater's reunion has been fruitful: the album's rich but lonesome harmonies and smart songwriting will satisfy longtime fans and newcomers alike.

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars