An Alt-Freakin'-Sweet Adventure

Thinking of You (Thrill Jockey Records)

Freakwater

By Tim Roberts

The tagline of No Depression used to be "The Magazine of Alt-Country (Whatever That Is)." Even though they've dropped that in favor of something a little more vague and, understandably, encompassing ("Surveying the Past, Present and Future of American Music"), the question still hangs around in the cosmos like a lost cat: What is alt-country?

Try to squeeze the subgenre into a concise description when someone unfamiliar with it asks you that same question and you might end up with, "The stuff like Lyle Lovett sings." (Possible response: "Ewww, he's the one with the weird hair. No wonder Julia Roberts ditched him."). Or, "The kind of music they won't play on Hot Country 109.3." (Possible response: "Didn't that used to be the Smooth Jamz station? Heard Toni Braxton on it when I got out of my car last night and heard someone named Brooksie Dunn when I got back in this morning.").

Or you could just lend that person your copy of Freakwater's Thinking of You and hope for the best.

Spread out among three cities (Louisville, Chicago and Ashville, N.C.), the members of Freakwater (guitarists and vocalists Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean and bassist Dave Gay) are believed to have defined the subgenre with their initial self-titled release in 1989, one year before Uncle Tupelo released No Depression (the recording, not the magazine), which is considered to be the cornerstone of alt-country in the era when country music superstars began to Vegas-up their shows and their sound became amped versions of stuff The Eagles had performed in the previous decade.

What modern country music lost back then is what Freakwater (and others) kept: the twang, the harmonies, the instrumentation, the honesty. Listening to Thinking of You, you'll hear the sounds that made Mother Maybelle Carter famous folded around lyrics such as "You thought you were so sly / With a couple of rich friends behind your Vaseline lens / And your hand on the shutter," or "Here down in Loserville / We say if looks could kill / We'd all have been dead long ago." It would be the stuff on the jukebox in a honky-tonk where Walt Whitman's darker alter-ego would go drown his sorrows in a mug of warm Pabst.

Freakwater also uses a variety of traditional and not-so-traditional instruments on Thinking of You. The expected stuff like guitars, Dobros and banjoes, are there. But there's also a bass clarinet and a saw. It is as if they had raided the walls of a Cracker Barrel dining room (and left all the baskets and rusty feed store signs) before they started recording. Yet it all works.

Bands like Freakwater challenge our ears and beckon us to take an adventure that might stretch out perceptions of what music can be made. Thinking of You not only challenges your ears to take that adventure, but it also challenges the alt-country subgenre itself, one that they probably helped create.

Whatever that is.

Get all freaky over at www.freakwater.net.