Generally speaking, it’s probably unfair to compare an artist’s solo work to his or her full-band efforts. I know this, and yet I couldn’t stop doing exactly that when I first dove into Catherine Irwin’s long-awaited second solo record, Little Heater (Thrill Jockey). Irwin is a key player in the influential alt-country band Freakwater, known for the gorgeous vocal chemistry exhibited by Irwin and fellow singer Janet Bean. Their harmonies, a sublime mix of the carnal and the angelic, set the bar at a level few singing duos have ever reached (and ever will reach).
During my first pass through Little Heater, I found myself wishing from time to time that Bean’s voice would come in and wrap itself around Irwin’s. I lined up each track against Freakwater’s best. In short, I kept thinking about what the record wasn’t, rather than what it was. So I forced myself to start over, and it was then that Little Heater opened up to me. It’s a spare, elegant record, full of slow-to-mid-tempo songs built primarily around Irwin’s keen eye for detail and her remarkable, expressive voice. I wouldn’t suggest it as anyone’s first taste of Irwin’s work — unfair or not, her Freakwater material is stronger — but fans of this gifted artist will love immersing themselves in these songs.
Musically, Irwin and producer Tara Jane ONeil keep things rustic and simple. Irwin’s vocals and acoustic guitar are joined by strings, keyboards, mournful pedal steel and background vocals (provided by ONeil and a host of others, including Bonnie “Prince” Billy.) Producer ONeil adds these musical accents the way a painter fills in a background, taking care never to overwhelm the main subject.
Irwin’s voice is in fine form here — earthy, twangy, full of yearning and pain. As usual, she uses it to explore the darker sides of faith and human nature. The lyrics can be elliptical, sometimes even surreal, but they’re often punctuated by startling images of pain and despair. “I’ve slept with women with scars on their eyes / I’ve climbed to heaven on a ladder made out of lies,” she sings on “The Whole of the Law”. The track begins just with Irwin singing over her guitar, but then other instruments are gradually layered in — piano, drums, strings. The song builds and builds so that by the end, you feel like you’ve lived and died with the narrator.
Other standout tracks include “Hoopskirt”, highlighted by beautifully rendered “Oooh, oooh, oooh” background vocals. “Sinner Saves the Saint”, a song written by the late cartoonist John Callahan, features great pedal-steel licks accompanied by what sounds like a faraway harmonica. “Pale Horse/Pale Rider” jerks forward on the back of skittery guitar chords and a haunting string section.
There are some missteps. “We Must Also Love the Thieves” gets stuck in a droning vocal, and “Nightshade” sounds generic and undercooked. And I still wonder if the album is a bit too mellow — a couple of tracks that surge with Freakwater-style energy would have rounded this record out nicely. Overall, though, this is a stellar effort from Irwin, one that proves she can stand on her own away from her band. At its best, Little Heater transports you to a dark world full of pain, loss and music so beautiful that it makes the trip not just worthwhile, but necessary.
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