For more than 15 years Janet Bean considered making a solo record, but her insecurities kept her from taking the plunge. She’s always been more comfortable as part of a group, playing integral roles in two of Chicago’s finest–Eleventh Dream Day (as a singer and drummer) and Freakwater (as a singer and guitarist). “I’m so lucky that everyone in those bands is so great,” she says. “In a way that’s almost what was so daunting about making a record of my own, because then it might be revealed that I was the weak link. I was afraid that everyone would find out that I was a fraud.”
Bean’s first solo disc, Dragging Wonder Lake (Thrill Jockey, released April 8), proves those fears unfounded. Elements of her other bands can be heard here–there are traces of Freakwater’s rural gloom, as well as some extended solos and textural explorations a la EDD–and the influences she cites (Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Dusty Springfield’s Dusty in Memphis) make their presence felt too. But Bean’s album reveals a personal vision, and it expands the horizons of American roots music with an assurance and craftsmanship on par with the best of her groups’ work.
“In the last couple of years I started thinking that I really needed to do this,” says Bean. She’d been going through a rough time: she was in debt, she had relationship problems, and her ex-husband and Eleventh Dream Day bandmate Rick Rizzo was remarrying. “I needed something to get me out of the whole mess,” she says. So last June she called Thrill Jockey owner Bettina Richards to schedule studio time with John McEntire, forcing herself to adhere to some kind of deadline. Then Bean assembled the band she’d eventually dub the Concertina Wire: ace steel guitarist Jon Spiegel, a regular collaborator of hers since the late 80s; cellist Fred Lonberg-Holm and pianist Jim Baker, key players in the city’s improvised-music scene who’d contributed to the countrypolitan arrangements on Freakwater’s 1999 album, Endtime; and bassist John Abbey and drummer Dan Leali.
“I wanted to see if I did it the way I heard it in my head how it would be,” Bean says of the recording process. When her songs were fed into the Freakwater or Eleventh Dream Day “machines,” they always ended up sounding different from how she’d originally imagined them. But though she did seek specific instrumentation, she didn’t order her backing players around like a bunch of session men. She encouraged them to play to their idiosyncratic strengths, and few parts were set in stone. “She was really unrestrictive about what we could do,” says Lonberg-Holm. “She would ask us what we heard in the song and what we’d like to do.” The band didn’t spend much time fussing over arrangements, and according to Bean they’ve rehearsed as a group only about a dozen times. “You show them your songs and [they] get them immediately,” she says. “Sometimes I would be so overwhelmed that a song I wrote could sound like it did.”
There’s a darkness to some of the tracks that makes for uneasy listening, as Bean’s lyrics investigate the destructive patterns that recur in unhealthy relationships; many of her characters struggle to move on, but more often than not they repeat painful mistakes. The band translates these difficult decisions into music with counterintuitive harmonic choices and bumpy resolutions.
Baker’s contributions are particularly empathic. He brings a funereal heft to Randy Newman’s “The God Song (That’s Why I Love Mankind)” and injects discordant harmonies and out-of-time phrases on a version of Neil Young’s “Soldier”–he even undercuts his Floyd Cramer-style tinkling on “Glass of a Stranger” with some unexpected dissonance. But the record isn’t unrelentingly gloomy. “All Fools Day,” which features backing vocals from Kelly Hogan, has a jubilant Memphis-soul feel, and “My Little Brigadoon” surges with pop hooks that recall Grant Hart’s work with Husker Du.
Bean hasn’t played out much over the last few years, and her performance on Sunday night at the Empty Bottle will be only her fourth local show with the Concertina Wire. After finishing Freakwater’s tour for Endtime she took a job as a project assistant for a local law firm–“Most of the time I sit in a cubicle and shuffle papers and watch my ass grow,” she says–and between working full-time and raising her 11-year-old son, Matt (she and Rizzo share custody), she doesn’t have much free time. One of the reasons Bean’s longtime partner in Freakwater, Catherine Irwin, released her first solo album last year was so she could play shows more regularly.
“I love singing with Catherine, and I miss it,” Bean says. “I sort of view it like tennis: you can play it into your 80s, you just play it a little slower. I don’t want it to go away.” In June Freakwater will make a new record with J.D. Foster, who’s produced Richard Buckner and Marc Ribot. They’ve also got some high-profile shows scheduled in California this summer, with Nick Cave and at the Matt Groening-curated All Tomorrow’s Parties festival. But for now Bean is concentrating on her solo material. “I feel remarkably proud, like an older parent having a kid at 40, when you’re amazed by the whole thing,” she says. “If I had done this when I was 20 I’m sure I would have been much more cavalier about [it]. But I did something. I have a job, I raise a child, and I made my own record.”