Some things are so idiosyncratic, it's hard to conceive of a world without them. It could be something fried and served on a stick, George Seurat's pointillism, stereogram 3-D posters or the aching country-soaked sounds of Freakwater.
Freakwater is a 27-year-old Chicago-by-way-of-Louisville, Ky., combo founded by singer/guitarists Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Irwin, whose vocals intertwine like vines climbing a country-folk trellis in the Carter Family's backyard.
Freakwater came along in the late '80s alongside fellow Midwesterners the Jayhawks and Uncle Tupelo, forging a haunting old-timey sound a decade before Americana became a thing.
For Bean and Irwin, being ahead of their time meant pulling up stakes just as the land became valuable. After releasing a host of albums between 1989 and 1999, Bean and Irwin left to pursue solo careers and other projects, getting together for the occasional reunion tour—until earlier this month, when Freakwater released Scheherazade (Bloodshot Records; Feb. 5, 2016), its first album in 11 years.
Scheherazade emerged from shows Freakwater performed to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the band's 1995 Feels Like the Third Time, abetted by guitarist James Elkington (Bean's bandmate in Chicago folk band The Horse's Ha since 2002).
"Everything sounded so good," said Bean. "[Elkington] just played so fantastically, and the songs... I don't know, they're just sort of invigorating after you haven't done it in a long time. And to play a body of work that old in its entirety? It was sort of an interesting process. Then he kept saying, 'You've got to make a record. You've got to make a record.' So we just said OK. People tell us to do something, we'll do it."
Bean's and Irwin's mesmerizing harmonies flutter and fall like a feather in the breeze, tender objects acted upon by a fierce world and echoing the calamity of their characters. It ranges from the downtrodden "Bolshevik and Bollweevil" to the searing socio-cultural murder ballad, "What the People Want" and the bent societal bough of "Down Will Come Baby," whose dark imprimatur suggests Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds going gospel.
Some of the tracks' deep, burrowing sound comes courtesy of Murder By Death cellist Sara Balliet, whose strains are the perfect counterpoint to Irwin and Bean's melancholy wail.
"[Balliet] gets a beautiful sound and she has really great ideas," said Bean. "It was really nice to have somebody that plays so well and is completely comfortable with us making things up."
Freakwater also received help on two cuts from violinist Warren Ellis (Dirty Three, Bad Seeds), who told the band he'd taken the liberty of putting some alto-flute on one of the tracks.
"I was thinking 'Oh no. How do we tell Warren flute is not going to work?'" Irwin said. "Then we listened to it, and it was just so phenomenal."
The title of Freakwater's latest album is a reference to The Arabian Nights, a centuries-old collection of Arabic folk tales, including "Scheherazade," which tells of a cuckolded king who weds and kills a new wife every day. The eponymous Scheherazade is up next and, to avoid her fate, each night she tells the king an incomplete story, promising to finish it the next night.
"I love the idea that if you ever stop talking that you'll just die," Irwin said.
"Because then, if you stop talking, you'll have to have some self-reflection," Bean added. "It isn't like a king is going to kill us. It's our inner selves."
Bean and Irwin have the mannerisms of a long-married couple: They complete each other's sentences and banter back-and-forth between questions. Their friendship goes back to their teens, when Bean spotted Irwin hanging with the cool kids, wearing a look of divine indifference.
"They looked like mean cool kids that I was really intrigued with," Bean said. "My mom said, 'Why don't [you] go down there and introduce yourself to them? You need some friends. You never get out of the house. Why don't you just knock on the door and tell them, 'I'm Janet?'"
As if. But a couple of years later, Bean met a 16-year old Irwin working the door at a show by legendary Louisville punks Circle X. Irwin let her in, sparking a friendship that has spanned three decades. While Bean and Irwin occasionally offer each other ideas for lyrics or melodies, their writing process is solitary.
"People always say that they write songs together, but I don't even know how that's possible," said Irwin. "That would be a really ugly process."
"I would rather me watch her throw up than have me watch that," said Bean.
"I would much rather have her watch me throw up," Irwin added.
"I'd like for you to hold my wig while I'm vomiting," Bean said. "That'd be enough."
Their feeling of connection reached its apex during an early morning radio interview.
"Some woman from Michigan was talking to us. She asked us a bunch of questions and then all of a sudden, she asked us 'What is your goal?'" Bean said. "We didn't even look at each other or anything but at the exact same time, we both said, 'To destroy all hope.' And we kind of looked at each other like, 'What the fuck? I didn't know that was your goal!' It was like..."
"We were destined," said Irwin.