Featuring Eleventh Dream Day drummer Janet Bean and her songwriting foil, Catherine Irwin, 1990s and 2000s Chicago country ensemble Freakwater has a considerably more traditional and reverential approach to roots music than one would expect from a band with such an indie-rock pedigree. And while the alt-country label is appropriate, Freakwater's dusty, aching songs of heartache and sorrow--replete with Bean and Irwin's vintage harmonies--are as removed from the rave-up cow punk of neo-traditionalist hipsters as they are from Music Row. Though its sound may be familiar to a variety of listeners, Freakwater is on its own humble, singular mission.
Let's just cut right to it: Freakwater may just be the most compelling country band of the '90s, and there's no need to qualify that with an alt either. On End Time the veteran indie-twangers flesh out their sound like never before--adding drums, keyboards, and even a string section--without diluting the emotional force of their previous work. While earlier records hewed pretty closely to classic acoustic strumming and two-part harmonies of the Carter Family and Louvin Brothers, this record, their fifth and most fully realized, progresses through country's history by adding honky-tonk shuffles, country-rock grooves, and even countrypolitan-style ballads to their more Spartan material. On some cuts, sawing fiddles and whining steel mingle with organ, piano, or screeching electric guitar; on others, there's only moaning Dobro, lilting mandolin, or delicate acoustic. Lyrically, singers Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean continue to challenge listeners with provocative dark themes, deeply personal reflections, and clever metaphors that manage to attack timeless subjects with a very contemporary attitude. And when the anguished harmonies glow like they do on "My History" and "All Life Long," the results are spine chilling. Whereas most contemporary country acts politely nod at the country tradition as they attempt to modernize it, Freakwater use it as a springboard for their bold, agonizing music, which is every bit as contemporary as the current Nashville crop. --Marc Greilsamer
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