Eleven years after their last record, Freakwater proves they've still got it, and then some.
Scheherazade is Freakwater’s first album in 11 years, and first with Bloodshot Records, a departure from their longstanding relationship with Thrill Jockey. Bloodshot is in line with Freakwater stylistically in a way that Thrill Jockey never quite has been, and that cohesive musical aesthetic really shows on Scheherazade. Freakwater sounds, more than ever, exactly like themselves. The elements for which they are known are positioned at the forefront and emphasized like a gut punch.
The group's most recent record, 2005’s Thinking of You… sticks to a pretty traditional country sound. It’s a joy to hear the versatility of the band on Scheherazade, to see them take more straight-ahead country songs like “Bolshevik and Bollweevil” and stretch them out with big, crashing vocal harmonies. To hear a track like that directly next to some of the darkest and weirdest material to come out of Freakwater, and to have that change make perfect sense, speaks to the experience and precision with which core members Janet Bean, Catherine Irwin, and Dave Gay have honed their vision.
“Down Will Come Baby” and “Falls of Sleep” play to the dark alt-country currently being cultivated by groups like Delta Rae and Grace Potter and the Nocturnals, but there is a depth of history there that’s not easy for modern players to access or emulate. Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin have always been lauded for their vocal harmonies and it’s easy to see why: there’s no Mumford and Sons purity here. These women aren’t afraid of an ugly blue note, aren’t afraid to get a dirty, awful sound out of a swampy track. The rejection of polished arrangements on this record is so finessed, it’s masterful in and of itself. Freakwater first distinguished themselves in the mid 1980s with a basement recording on a cassette tape, and that punk rock DIY spirit is laced through Scheherazade, three decades and an untold amount of studio time later.
The record’s namesake is of course the legendary queen and storyteller of One Thousand and One Nights, who keeps herself alive by telling her murderous husband a new, compelling story every night to convince him to spare her life until the next day. The songs on Scheherazade are reaching towards the same goal: they’re compelling narratives, small moments, and reflections meant to hook the listener, to keep the album playing for one more song. Americana and country music are built around stories more than composition, and while the arrangements here are stellar, they’re nothing without a narrative voice.
Overall Scheherazade is a masterful step forward for Freakwater with an eye on its influences and history. Its songs grapple with duality, with a balance between muddy, dirty roots music and clear, split open beauty, and the album balances itself so well in that regard. The triumvirate at the center of Freakwater is stronger and surer than ever, which is an incredible achievement any time let alone after a major label change. There’s never been any telling where Freakwater will go next, or even if they’ll continue to work together, but it’s heartening to see such a strong effort after such a lengthy hiatus. Fingers crossed their next work will be as thought-provoking and cohesive, and that the wait will be a few years shorter.