Freakwater's approach a bit like musical moonshine

Freakwater Credit: Freakwater
Freakwater Credit: Freakwater
| Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

When a band picks a name as distinctive and weird as Freakwater, there ought to be a story behind it.

“It's just a made-up word,” explains Catherine Ann Irwin, one of Freakwater's pair of strikingly dissimilar singer/songwriters. “We had in mind that it should be like Crazy Horse, in that it's two words (though it wasn't.) Then people said that it did mean something, that it was a word for moonshine.”

If that's true, it's almost too perfect for a band that actually sounds like a sonic distillation of the most potent moonshine ever brewed secretly in a backwoods still.

“I have a Google Alert for (online mentions of) Freakwater,” says Janet Beveridge Bean, Freakwater's other prime mover. “It's always telling me when there's a ‘freak water' accident somewhere.”

Between moonshine and freak accidents, you actually get a pretty good idea of the territory Freakwater travels. They'll be in Pittsburgh this Thursday, on a tour celebrating the 20th anniversary and re-release of their seminal album, “Feels Like the Third Time.”

When they started making music in Louisville, Ky., in 1989, they were pretty much all alone. The only quasi-genre that could (sort of) hold them, “alt-country,” didn't yet exist. It was just weird, stripped-down mountain music that was too dark, too raw, too strange for the dwindling audience of old-timers and ex-hippies who still bought folk music at the time. It was like using the plot of “Justified” when people expected “The Beverly Hillbillies.”

Luckily, there was Thrill Jockey Records in Chicago, who were best known for noisy experimental rock. Bean also was part of the Neil Young-ish rock band Eleventh Dream Day, which released an album on the label.

Freakwater's songs often descend into dark places, dwelling on things like drunken misery and revenge. No amount of processed Nashville gloss could make songs like “Good for Nothing” (as in “I've been...”), and “Louisville Lip” — about Cassius Clay throwing his Olympic gold into the Ohio River in disgust, after being turned away from a restaurant in his hometown — fit for truck commercials.

But if there's not much happiness to be found in their music, at least they clearly enjoy each other's company and friendship.

Freakwater's appeal lies largely in its razor-sharp songwriting, and the stark contrast between the band members' voices. Musically, they're a deadly one-two punch combination. In conversation, they laugh a lot and frequently finish each other's jokes.

“I think it's often presented in magazines as Janet is purely good, and I'm purely evil,” Irwin says.

“A review of our show in New York once said my hair ‘was brushed too neatly and my clothes were ironed too nicely,' ” Bean says. “And Catherine, ‘looked like she'd shoot you off the back porch with a shotgun.' ”

“My mom would read that and be like, ‘Don't you have an iron?' ” Irwin says. “I can't believe that nice girl even wants to play with you.”

Bean's voice is often described as “angelic.” It seems that no one can describe Irwin's without referencing whiskey.

“Her voice may be whiskey-drenched, but her personality is like so sweet,” Bean says. “There's endless layers … like a tiramisu!”

“It's sedimentary,” Irwin says. “With some occasional fracking.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at or 412-320-7901.

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