Catherine Irwin - Little Heater
A lot of albums tend to get lost in the flurry of new releases in September. It would be a shame if that fate befell Catherine Irwin's second solo album Little Heater.
Catherine's name may be unfamiliar on its own, as she is best known as the vocalist in the seminal Americana band Freakwater, whose eponymous debut album helped plant the foundations of alt-country back in 1989.
Little Heater is the follow-up to the sparse and bleak Cut Yourself a Switch which came out ten years ago. She is now based back in Louisville, Kentucky and this record is more than just an alt-country singer songwriter album, as it is touched by the sense of southern gothic that is common to a lot of acts from that part of the world.
Key to this is the personnel involved in the making of Little Heater. Catherine credits Tara Jane O’Neil (Rodan, Sonora Pine, Ida) as the "producer and mastermind" of the sessions, and much of Tara's band Ida provide guest vocals and instrumentation. Marc Orleans provides subtle pedal steel guitar, but perhaps the most intriguing contribution is harmony vocals on some of the songs from Louisville resident Will Oldham, including a lovely duet 'To Break Your Heart' which would have slotted easily on to any of the recent Bonnie Prince Billy releases.
The production is sparse but beautiful, and is very sympathetic to the voice and the bare bones of the song. Over the years, Catherine has been acclaimed as a remarkable songwriter, although she isn't afraid to attempt traditional songs and covers as well, even touching on the New Weird America folk movement that sprung up since she last released a record. Here she interprets the haunting ‘We Must Also Love the Thieves' by psych-folk act Wooden Wand and 'Sinner Saves a Saint' by John Callahan, but the finest reversion is saved for the traditional folk song 'Banks of the Ohio' which reinstates it as a properly creepy murder ballad.
The album opens with 'Mockingbird' and the first line "Crying makes my head hurt so I try not to cry" underlines the sense of melancholy and heartbreak that makes this music so affecting. 'Dusty Groove' introduces pedal steel and violin to the mix, and 'Hoopskirt' is traditional country which can hold its own with the best of the genre. The banjo-dominated 'Piss to Gin' is irreverent and lighter in tone, and 'Pale Horse/ Pale Rider' is probably the edgiest and least traditional in terms of song structure.
The real highlights are found in her own song writing. The back to back sequence of 'Nightshade', 'Flowers of Darkness' and 'Save Our Ships' centre around the time honoured themes of loss, despair and the dangers found in nature, but these have been given a modern poetic twist by Irwin. This is traditional music with modern touches and references. 'The Whole of the Law' is both the longest song and one of the loveliest tunes here, and together with the rest of these new songs, it makes a strong argument for Little Heater to be considered as some of Catherine Irwin’s very best work.
With no Freakwater releases since 2005 and no solo releases for ten years, it is good to report that Catherine Irwin has come back with a record as strong as this. The songs, the warmth in the voices and the sympathetic production make this one of the finest records in the genre to emerge this year.