Catherine Irwin: Cut Yourself a Switch

Charlotte Robinson

Catherine Irwin

Cut Yourself a Switch

Label: Thrill Jockey
US Release Date: 2002-10-08
UK Release Date: 2002-10-21

Catherine Irwin may benefit from the current mainstream appreciation of bluegrass music fueled by the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack, but she's certainly not riding on the bandwagon. Although she started out playing folk and punk in the early 1980s, the Louisville, Kentucky native has been performing gothic-tinged country music for a decade as a member of the revered group Freakwater. While Irwin plans to reunite with Freakwater cohort Janet Bean next year, she decided to use a number of her new compositions to create her solo debut, Cut Yourself a Switch.

Like the best country releases of the past few years, Irwin's album eschews Nashville excess in favor of folk simplicity. The instrumentation on Cut Yourself a Switch consists mostly of Irwin playing guitar and banjo, with Freakwater's Dave Gay on bass. The pair is joined occasionally by accordion, fiddle, drums, and other guitars, but the music never overpowers Irwin's voice, an alternately quavering and domineering instrument. Although the instrumentation and slow tempo vary little throughout the course of the album, Irwin manages to convey many moods. She looks death and darkness in the eye in unwavering Southern style on "Cry Our Little Eyes Out", a tale of a young girl's death on which she curses the usual symbols of comfort: "That clear blue sky comes like a slap across my face / I want to close my eyes 'til the dark clouds roll in". In her cover of the Carter Family's "Will You Miss Me", death is treated as a simple inevitability while the endurance of love is the real topic of the song.

Then, on her original "Hex" and the Elvis Presley cover "Power of My Love", Irwin comes on sexy and strong. In the former title, Irwin's narrator has cast a spell to bewitch the object of her affection, while in "Power of My Love", her sensual powers are so irresistible there's no need to go to such measures. As she sings, "Baby I want you / You'll never get away / My love will haunt you / Yes, haunt you night and day". In Irwin's world, women are the pursuers, not the pursued, and the perpetrators of crimes of passion, not the victims. It's as if the narrators of Irwin's songs are the opposites of Dolly Parton's wronged women on the 2001 Appalachian revival, Little Sparrow.

As a lyricist, Irwin creates gothic images but peppers them with folk wisdom and phrasing, as on "Swan Dive": "That was now, this is then / That was bourbon, this is gin / That's how we know / That spring has sprung". She also has a knack for well-chosen covers, including the above-mentioned Presley and Carter Family cuts as well as Roger Miller's "Don't We All Have the Right to Be Wrong Now and Then"; "The Only Hell My Momma Ever Raised", made famous by Johnny Paycheck; and "You Belong to Me". It's a testament to her talents that Irwin can handle the sorrowful apology, rebel's tale, and love song with equal adeptness.

Having been compared to everyone from Hazel Dickens, Sara Carter, Roscoe Holcomb, and Melba Montgomery to Flannery O'Connor, Irwin has to live up to a lot of hype. But with over a decade as a country performer and now this wonderful solo album under her belt, Irwin's dedication to the music cannot be denied, and neither can her talent.

So far J. J. Abrams and Rian Johnson resemble children at play, remaking the films they fell in love with. As an audience, however, we desire a fuller experience.

As recently as the lackluster episodes I-III of the Star Wars saga, the embossed gold logo followed by scrolling prologue text was cause for excitement. In the approach to the release of any of the then new prequel installments, the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare, followed by the Lucas Film logo, teased one's impulsive excitement at a glimpse into the next installment's narrative. Then sat in the movie theatre on the anticipated day of release, the sight and sound of the Twentieth Century Fox fanfare signalled the end of fevered anticipation. Whatever happened to those times? For some of us, is it a product of youth in which age now denies us the ability to lose ourselves within such adolescent pleasure? There's no answer to this question -- only the realisation that this sensation is missing and it has been since the summer of 2005. Star Wars is now a movie to tick off your to-watch list, no longer a spark in the dreary reality of the everyday. The magic has disappeared… Star Wars is spiritually dead.

Keep reading... Show less

This has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it.

It hardly needs to be said that the last 12 months haven't been everyone's favorite, but it does deserve to be noted that 2017 has been a remarkable year for shoegaze. If it were only for the re-raising of two central pillars of the initial scene it would still have been enough, but that wasn't even the half of it. Other longtime dreamers either reappeared or kept up their recent hot streaks, and a number of relative newcomers established their place in what has become one of the more robust rock subgenre subcultures out there.

Keep reading... Show less

​'The Ferryman': Ephemeral Ideas, Eternal Tragedies

The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

Staggeringly multi-layered, dangerously fast-paced and rich in characterizations, dialogue and context, Jez Butterworth's new hit about a family during the time of Ireland's the Troubles leaves the audience breathless, sweaty and tearful, in a nightmarish, dry-heaving haze.

"Vanishing. It's a powerful word, that"

Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

Keep reading... Show less

Aaron Sorkin's real-life twister about Molly Bloom, an Olympic skier turned high-stakes poker wrangler, is scorchingly fun but never takes its heroine as seriously as the men.

Chances are, we will never see a heartwarming Aaron Sorkin movie about somebody with a learning disability or severe handicap they had to overcome. This is for the best. The most caffeinated major American screenwriter, Sorkin only seems to find his voice when inhabiting a frantically energetic persona whose thoughts outrun their ability to verbalize and emote them. The start of his latest movie, Molly's Game, is so resolutely Sorkin-esque that it's almost a self-parody. Only this time, like most of his better work, it's based on a true story.

Keep reading... Show less

There's something characteristically English about the Royal Society, whereby strangers gather under the aegis of some shared interest to read, study, and form friendships and in which they are implicitly agreed to exist insulated and apart from political differences.

There is an amusing detail in The Curious World of Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn that is emblematic of the kind of intellectual passions that animated the educated elite of late 17th-century England. We learn that Henry Oldenburg, the first secretary of the Royal Society, had for many years carried on a bitter dispute with Robert Hooke, one of the great polymaths of the era whose name still appears to students of physics and biology. Was the root of their quarrel a personality clash, was it over money or property, over love, ego, values? Something simple and recognizable? The precise source of their conflict was none of the above exactly but is nevertheless revealing of a specific early modern English context: They were in dispute, Margaret Willes writes, "over the development of the balance-spring regulator watch mechanism."

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.