The Freelance Mentalists.
Wednesday, November 30, 2005
  Louisville Lip

Louisville Lip
By Don Allred

Part One:
Once upon a time, in the land o' Goshen, a nice, woodsy suburb of Louisville,
Kentucky, there were two teenaged girls, Janet Bean and Cathy Irwin. And back
then, at the dawn of the 80s, they were involved in an ongoing series of punk
bands, like Dick Brains, Butt In Front, Bunny Butthole, and Catbutt/Dogbutt.
But one night, they dressed and painted themselves up and went way downtown in
Louisville, to the Beat Club, between a bunch of strip joints and hooker
bars, to sing a few of the oldest, twangiest country songs they knew.
They didn't particularly mean to make a habit of this, but somehow, as
the Tammy Wynette fashion sense and the bands got lost, Irwin and Bean found
themselves still singing together, under the name of Freakwater, which supposedly
is a hillbilly synonym for moonshine. At first covering other people's songs,
and then very gradually writing more and more of their own, Freakwater
specialized in older-than-old-school country, also known as "folk" music: chronicles
of love and other disasters. Full of images, swirling around and riding on
plain ol' tunes. (Well, the tunes are often kinda pretty, but they don't wear
much makeup.)
The contrast of words and music extend into and from Freakwater's
self-taught harmonies, guitar styles, and lifestyles. Irwin's the flat-picking, smoky
alto, who lives mostly in Louisville, painting canvas, houses, and other rude
objects; Bean's the strumming, translucent soprano, who moved to Chicago,
worked in law offices, and now studies genetics. Freakwater is unison, as well
as harmony, and unison is next to what some rule "out of tune," but also
subject to co-ordination. And stress. That has to be factored in too, if you want
what you've built to last.You gotta have stress, like you gotta have friends. On
1999's End Time, and 2005's Thinking Of You, they fit many session musicians
into a remarkably intimate, homebrewed sound. Reportedly thinking of John
Cale's Paris 1919, Big Star's Third/Sister Lovers (which took some cues from Dusty
Springfield's Dusty In Memphis, according to Ron Jovanovic's Big Star band
history) and Elvis' "sessions in Memphis and Vegas" (like "Kentucky Rain,"
maybe?), they quietly shift small, distinctive combinations of instruments in and
out of the foreground. (Currently, in the fall of '05, the touring band is:
Irwin, on banjo as well as guitar and vocals; Bean, guitar and vocals; their
longtime bass player, David Gay; with Joe Adamik on drums, bass clarinet, and
keyboards.) But I notice, adjusting the EQ, how easy it is to mess up the mix, so
that the instruments suddenly crowd the voices. And sometimes the images can
crowd the themes, as in one of their many struggles-with-religion-and-guilt
songs, End Time's "Cloak Of Frogs", which is as sensationally Southern Gothic as
you might suspect from its title.
And Janet Bean's 2003 solo album, Dragging Wonder Lake, is frustrating,
despite its inclusion of many (not all) good-to-great songs. (Just for one
example: a subset, comprised of a prequel and sequels, Bean's own equals, to Neil
Young's "Soldier." Overall effect, on paper, anyway: Flannery O'Connor
featuring Emily Dickinson, slicing and dicing Pat Benatar's "Love Is A Battlefield",
via John Cale's chamber of country-jazz-rock-blues-usage afterlife, Vintage
Violence.) And fine players. ('Tis said that Levon Helm was the only drummer that
could make you cry; haven't heard that track, but even if I had, I'd say: Dan
Leali, take a bow! But don't stop drumming.) But a number of tracks (it
varies; I'm still listening) tend to lose momentum, because Janet stretches her
voice too high and thin. And bids Kelly Hogan do the same! Kelly, who for
instance succinctly belted the role of doomed Lynyrdette Cassie Gaines on Drive-By
Truckers' Southern Rock Opera! And, dammit, despite the fact that Janet's done
her own share of belting, amidst the howling winds and northern lights of her
other band, the ruggedly neo-psychedelic Eleventh Dream Day, which, in songs
like "Frozen Mile," can seem at least as at home in Jack London's Alaska as in
Jefferson Airplane's and Neil-times-Crazy Horse's Northern California, or in
EDD's own Windy City, for that. Nor need she (or Kelly) necessarily belt, to
put a song across. In Freakwater, Janet sometimes sings a part which is usually
associated with harmony, but it's over and slightly behind Cathy's alto, so in
effect, Cathy's "harmony" becomes a counter-melody. (Which is also what
Ornette Coleman's saxophone, violin and trumpet seem to do, so maybe that's what he
means by "harmolodic," although the last time I checked, he still hadn't
offered a definitive-type definition.)(When they do this, they're still doing
their old-timey-associated tunes, so, in that sense, closer to Albert Ayler than
Ornette; Janet adopts a somewhat Ayleresque use of vibrato on some of Wonder
Lake, but (especially since she's not playing off Irwin, or Hogan, really) it
tends to come out more like Neil Young [if that such comparisons aren't too
contradicted by her stoicism vs. Ayler's and Young's tendencies to pathos]. Though
Young has said he's frustrated by his warble, and she may be singing what
he's going for, his voice is a little deeper, has a little more presence than
hers does on Wonder Lake.)
But these are experiments worth taking on, and usually, Freakwater's art
and hearts can cut a deal.And I do mean "cut." They like to sing about small,
shiny instruments, useful tools. "Needle in a haystack, burn the damn thing
down. And there you'll find the needle, lyin' right there, on the ground." Of
course it may get lost again, "lost but not forgotten!" Yes, so they can write
more anthems to the noble tool, and also mebbe keep hold of it long enough to
"write love letters in your skin," although that's just a passing fancy. (But
then, so are you.)
They do have issues with money, men, and other forms and uses of power.
In "Cheap Watch," when they hear last call, there's a mention of something
that isn't on the menu, a ball and chain. Sounds like they want one, or a new
grip on the one they've got, since they've got it, and as long as you're up; and
finally it occurs to dense male me, that Janis Joplin, who doesn't sound like
Freakwater otherwise, does sounds like she wanted that too, and for the same
reasons: to swing with, or to swing from, either way like a weapon, and/or
something in orbit, going around, coming around, and really getting out there, at
times, to swing. (Still the caveman's drawing, but maybe not too far off.)
So, as far as balls and chains go, a girl can dream about being a "Queen
Bee": "She's pretty and she's lucky but it's dark in there. She got a
honeycomb but she got no hair. The boys are waxin' her legs and doin' her nails,
knittin' her sweaters, with their pointy little tails. One little bee, the only
square in the hive, tried to get smart while he was alive. She aimed her hexagon
right between his eyes, and said, 'The Queen of the Bees, beats the Lord of
the Flies.' I'm gonna be the Queen Bee! And in the beautiful world I see, way
up in the hollow tree, perfect idolatry, little bees on their knees, saying,
"Baby you're the Queen Bee." (tiny fuzztones buzz) I won't grubbin' around down
here like I was, because, I'm gonna do like the Queen Bee does!"
End Of Part One, Part Two Continues Below:

"In Freakwater, Janet sometimes sings a part which is usually
associated with harmony, but it's over and slightly behind Cathy's alto, so in
effect, Cathy's "harmony" becomes a counter-melody. (Which is also what
Ornette Coleman's saxophone, violin and trumpet seem to do, so maybe that's what he
means by "harmolodic," although the last time I checked, he still hadn't
offered a definitive-type definition.)"

I went staright to ilm and to this thread - - where if you scroll down mid-way there's an explanation given re: hamolodics. I was trying to square both explanations (since I didn't see you there I thought I'd link it.)
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