Catherine Irwin's second solo album is a showcase for her considerable writing skills both musically and lyrically as well as her singular performance style. Little Heater combines raw and unadorned vocals with lush countrypolitan-style productions: gorgeous string sections, pedal steel guitar and dense layers of vocal harmonies. Lyrics follow the themes of old-time music -- loss, despair, self-destruction and delusion -- but the references and turns of phrase are entirely modern and entirely Catherine's. As she did on 2002's spare and haunting Cut Yourself a Switch, or as she has done as the primary songwriter in Freakwater, Catherine aims her laser wit into the dark corners of the human condition.
Little Heater was recorded and produced by Tara Jane ONeil (Rodan, Ida) in Woodstock, New York in September 2011. The acoustic instruments and vocals were captured with meticulous attention to detail, resulting in a sound that is relaxed, organic and immediate. Shimmering electric guitars and high-lonesome pedal steel wash over Catherine's voice while heartbeat steady bass drum drifts in from the next room. Lush and atmospheric, not unlike the way it sounds when you are alone and crying down at the bottom of a well. Tara plays drums and numerous other instruments. She also lends her voice to "Sinner Saves a Saint", a duet written by the late, great cartoonist John Callahan. Elizabeth Mitchell, Daniel Littleton and Jean Cook -- all members of Ida -- lend their considerable vocal and instrumental talents. Rounding out the guest contributions, Marc Orleans lays down some classic pedal steel solos and Bonnie Prince Billy offers up his keening vocals on a few tracks, gently complimenting Catherine's southern gothic tales.
Over the years, Irwin's songs have been covered by artists including Neko Case, Kelly Hogan, Califone and Jolie Holland. Neko covered Catherine's "Hex" on The Tigers Have Spoken, and "Dusty Groove" is the opening track on Kelly Hogan's major label debut. It should come as no surprise that musicians like the late Hazel Dickens, Steve Earle, Randy Newman, Indigo Girls and M. Ward number among Catherine's fans. As Freakwater, Catherine and Janet Bean virtually paved the way for what is now known as Alt-Country. There was no indie equal when they released their first album in 1989, at least a year prior to the first albums by bands such as Uncle Tupelo who soon joined them in spearheading a movement. Their debut album was an entirely new combination of classic country by the likes of The Louvin Brothers and striking, raw originals presented with an unvarnished punk rock/DIY attitude. Their next release, a 7", was a freaky, dulcimer-drenched cover of Black Sabbath's "War Pigs". With this they cracked it all open.
Since then, Freakwater has continued to combine their punk rock aesthetic with a deep love and understanding of country music over the course of 7 highly influential studio albums. The recent re-issue of their Thrill Jockey debut Feels Like the Third Time, with classic Irwin penned songs like "My Old Drunk Friend", sold out in pre-sales.
Catherine refused label requests to record for several years, waiting to record only when she was ready. This is typical Catherine. She is less concerned with what others think she should do than with what she thinks would be most interesting. She continued writing songs and working on paintings. Her portraits are abstract and emotional, often dark and naive in style. They are haunting and penetrating like her words. Over the past year she tried different recording techniques, from 4-track live to full-on studio, until she found the right combination with Tara and Ida.
We are glad she stuck to her guns as this is her finest recording to date, a stand out in her remarkable body of work. Whether the landscape is urban or rural, personal or political, the terrain over which Catherine drags her pen is dark, but paved with diamonds.
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