Freakwater End Time

"I’ve been good," Catherine Irwin sings in her hard-bitten, but tuneful twang, and then pauses for a few beats before resuming, as if having reconsidered, "And I’ve been good for nothing." So opens Freakwater’s sixth album, with a casually brilliant turn of phrase bespeaking the discontent at the heart of so much country music — almost a country music redux of the paltry wages of virtue and the remoteness of redemption. Indeed, Freakwater have been mining the rich veins of Appalachian folk and bluegrass that inform so much country music since their inception, embracing a Spartan aesthetic fore-grounding the raw, untutored harmonies of Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean’s earnest trill — harmonies that can make your rheumatism act up. End Time, though, veers sharply from their anachronistically sparse, rustic charms. But Irwin isn’t worried about alienating bluegrass purists with a fuller sound swollen with strings, organ and a drummer (Steve Goulding of the Mekons and Waco Brothers). "It seems we’re always in trouble with bluegrass people anyway," Irwin laughs from her Louisville, Kentucky home. "People are always asking me, ‘Do you know how much these people in Nashville hate you?’ But we never claimed to be a bluegrass band — we’re certainly not technically proficient enough." There’s no question about their proficiency as songwriters, however. Twelve lovely new tracks cut a wide swath across the bountiful spectrum of country. The hangdog lamentations of "Good For Nothing," the Appalachian stomp of "Queen Bee" and the majestic crescendos in the final chord changes of "When the Leaves Begin to Fall" occupy vastly disparate nodes of country music with uncommon beauty. There’s little in the way of virtuoso playing, but the expanded sound and format may have given Freakwater a flexibility never before open to them. "It does open up new possibilities," Irwin concedes, "but having a bigger band and sound wasn’t meant to be a statement. It was just something that was a possibility — we never had ten whole days to make a record before, instead of, say seven. Anyway, I’ve always loved the string sections in overproduced country records. Some of our fans might think it’s funny that I’d like Tammy Wynette records, but I do." (Thrill Jockey)