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Catherine Irwin

Cut Yourself A Switch – 2002 (Thrill Jockey)

Reviewed by Sophie Best

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CDs by Catherine Irwin

In the early 1990s, Freakwater were already old-timers on the indie scene. The two women at the centre of Freakwater, Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean, were young enough, but their music sounded decidedly old and odd, like a singalong between two eccentric maiden aunts at a sherry party. In loose, sometimes jarring and sometimes beautiful harmonies, Irwin and Bean sang their fractured, rustic and mournful tunes about drinking, poverty, atheism and varicose veins, paired with folk ballads and covers of Bill Monroe, Woody Guthrie and Merle Travis songs.

Irwin sticks to this formula on her first solo release without Bean. The presentation of seven originals and five covers is stripped-back in the extreme - just Irwin banging out acoustic guitar and banjo licks to accompany her maudlin vocals, with basic accompaniment by Freakwater's Dave Gay on bass. The pace hangs heavy, sombre and often deadpan for most of the album, taking on a monochrome effect which may make the album a little hard going even for Freakwater fans.

With no Bean harmonies to throw her vocals into relief, Irwin's singing sounds bare, hardbitten and broken, and that's perfectly consonant with much of her pessimistic, scorched-earth subject matter. There's very little texture to defray the bleak mood, however, aside from a thumbed-nose workout of Johnny Paycheck's "The Only Hell My Momma Ever Raised," with guests from Gay's other band, Unholy Trio, mucking in on drums, organ and guitar.