The 10-year span since the last Freakwater album, 2005's "Thinking of You," combined with the busy schedules of Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin, the band's core duo, might have intimated to some that they were headed down permanently divergent paths. Between Bean's outside band activities (Eleventh Dream Day, Horse's Ha), Irwin's visual art career and both women's solo work, it seemed that Freakwater's well might have run tragically dry.
"Scheherazade" proves that Bean, Irwin and longtime bass genius David Wayne Gay are far from done, and may in fact be hitting their creative stride. With the assistance of a central band rather than a rotating cast of guests, Bean and Irwin have crafted a hauntingly atmospheric set of Appalachian odes and anthems, each one featuring their brittle and heartfelt harmonies and designed to inspire soul searching or foot stomping.
"Scheherazade" opens with "What the People Want," a mournful murder ballad that crackles with Gillian Welch/David Rawlings energy and portent, and then immediately follows with "The Asp and the Albatross," a relentlessly loping country/folk gem that could have been a 1969 collaboration between Gram Parsons, Emmylou Harris and the Rolling Stones.
On the other end of Freakwater's sonic spectrum is the rumbling electric Brit folk snap and spark of "Down Will Come Baby," with a lyric seemingly lifted from a Stephen King short story and set to a menacing Richard Thompson score. Bean and Irwin drift from strength to strength on "Scheherazade," balancing gentle spine tinglers like "Ghost Song" and "Skinny Knee Bone" to quiet howlers like "Falls of Sleep" and "Velveteen Matador" that bristle with cautionary foreboding and a deceptively powerful undercurrent. 25 years on, Freakwater is still finding ways to crest its own amazing flood stage.