With album number six, the ominously titled End Time (Thrill Jockey), Freakwater has undergone the most significant reinvention of its career, and the swapping of multi-instrumentalist Max Johnston for steel guitarist Eric Heywood feels like the least of the changes. End Time is the first Freakwater album to include as many songs by Janet Bean as by Cathy Irwin, the first not to include any covers, the first to feature a full drum kit throughout, and the first to use a string section. In addition to the usual nods to Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard and the Carter Family, there are streaks of Emmylou Harris and Memphis soul, and in spots Bean’s tune “Raised Skin” even recalls the Stones classic “Wild Horses.” But the trademarks that have endeared Freakwater to its devout fans remain–the sublime marriage of Irwin’s earthy moan and Bean’s heavenly trill, Irwin’s poisonous humor, and the pair’s willingness to twist tempos as the mood requires. Despite the new songwriting ratio, End Time features as many of Irwin’s finest zingers as any previous album: over raw slide guitar and determined foot tapping on “Sick, Sick, Sick” she sings, “Drink the drink and crimson smiles are clinging to the rim / Lipstick sticks, a liquor licks the old flames,” and on the delightful “Queen Bee” she imagines herself commanding a vast hive of drones. None of Bean’s songs are nearly so light–on the chilly murder ballad “Cloak of Frogs,” Jon Spiegel’s Dobro shadows her spooked singing like a ghost, and the less gothic but equally unsettling tearjerker “My History” is a blunt accounting of a crumbling relationship. This show is one of only two this year that will feature the string section–violinist Julie Pomerleau, cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm, and upright bassist Kent Kessler–along with Heywood, bassist Dave Gay, and drummer Steve Goulding. Sally Timms, who has a superb new album coming out on Bloodshot next month, and Brokeback, the solo project of Bean’s Eleventh Dream Day bandmate Douglas McCombs, open. Saturday, 7 PM, Athenaeum Theatre, 2936 N. Southport; 773-935-6860 or 312-559-1212. PETER MARGASAK
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kate Auleta.