Death + Liquor = Freakwater

Freakwater, Springtime (Thrill Jockey 1998) - Springtime is the fifth release from Freakwater, a Louisville-based bluegrass quartet. With their quirky songs built around a classic bluegrass background, Freakwater is the Nick Cave of bluegrass recordings.

Which is to say, there's some downbeat material amid songs like "Washed in the Blood," "Twisted Wire," and "Jesus Year." But that's not to say that the music is morbid or excessively twisted.

Freakwater consists of guitarists and singers Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean, who are joined by David Wayne Gay and newcomer Max Konrad Johnston (formerly of Wilco).

The quartet's past gives some indication of their music: Catherine Irwin played in a punk-rock band with her brother called the "Dick Brains," and Janet Bean once thrived on Tammy Wynette songs.

Catherine and Janet have played together for nearly 15 years, and now live six hours apart from each other: Says Irwin, "I think people who are married shouldn't live in the same town - it kind of keeps the magic alive."

Death and liquor are among Freakwater's most popular themes, and are deftly joined in "Picture in My Mind," in which the band sings, "Whiskey is not evil/When it's sitting on the shelf . . . A shotgun never shot no one/When it's hanging on the wall."

Freakwater shows that bluegrass is not a dusty relic of the 30s. Not for everyone, Springtime is a strong release.

Gov't Mule, Dose (Capricorn 1998) - The trio known as Gov't Mule (says the band, "The name kind of describes us: we're a slow, hard working, non-glorious animal") are another new signing to Capricorn Records, the revitalized Atlanta-based label. Influenced by grunge, Dose is a classic power trio with a twist of country blues.

Gov't Mule consists of Warren Haynes on vocal and guitars, Allen Woody on bass, and Matt Abts on drums. The threesome has extensive live experience, both together and as members of such acclaimed groups as the Allman Bros. Band and the Dickey Betts Band.

For their third recording, the group recruited producer Michael Barbiero, who has worked with such bands as Soundgarden, Blues Traveler, and Guns 'n Roses. Says drummer Abts, "For Dose, we experimented with a lot of different sounds and textures in the studio, yet Michael captured the spark and freshness of a live setting."

Gov't Mule is a throwback to the late 60's blues-based rock trios. The surprising standout cut is "She Said, She Said," a bluesy and fully satisfying cover of the Beatles' song.

Maybe some of the new southern rock bands (such as Hootie) have titillated you, but haven't rocked hard enough. Dose won't let you down, as it is a solid slice of southern blues rock.

Michelle Malone, Beneath the Devil Moon (Velvel Records 1997) - Thirty-year-old Michelle Malone, a native of Atlanta, is one of pop music's unheralded players. Since meeting the Indigo Girls a decade ago, Michelle has recorded seven albums, including projects with her bands, Drag the River and Band de Soleil. With Beneath the Devil Moon, Michelle shows her skills and maturity.

Beneath the Devil Moon boasts 11 songs, seven of which were co-produced by David Ryne Harris (who has worked with Dionne Farris). Michelle provides vocals and guitars, and is joined on several tracks by Band de Soleil (with Mike Snowden on bass and Danny Bigay on drums). In addition, Amy Ray and Emily Saliers contribute backing vocals on two cuts ("All My Lifetime" and "Devil Blues").

Says Michelle, "After ten years of making music, you get a certain style or vibe. I really tried to focus on the vocals on the record. I thought maybe I had to try to prove I could sing . . . It's liberating when you get a certain amount of self-esteem. You don't have to argue it with people any more or defend yourself."

Michelle reminds me of Brenda Kahn, a folky rocker who is capable of unleashing a blistering pop-rock song. And the standout cut here is "My Green Thumb," a radio-friendly cut that brings to mind a rocking Sheryl Crow.

Michelle has paid her dues, and deserves success. If radio finds "My Green Thumb," Michelle could enjoy a good year.

- Randy Krbechek © 1998

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