Springtime, the Louisville group's fifth record, captures everything that Freakwater's core members do best. Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean can harmonize like old-timey 78s, and David Wayne Gay's bass seems to ground them both. Ex-Wilco member Max Konrad Johnston can play anything with strings, but his banjo has one of the clearest voices of the entire album. It's the kinetic force of "Picture in My Mind," a song that brilliantly uses latent images and then sets them into motion. "A shotgun never shot no one/ When it's hanging on the wall," the singer warbles. The payoff: "I got itchy fingers/ And you got east to crawl."
Freakwater's songs sound familiar to anyone who's ever heard the Carter Family or good old mountain music, but on repeated listenings there is a subversion of country's cliches ("Cry yourself a river/ But it don't take much to drown") and meticulous craft put toward telling contemporary stories. ("Louisville Lip" is about the time that Muhammad Ali tossed his Olympic medal into a river when a diner wouldn't serve him.) The band breaks hearts and kicks dust live.
-- Jeff Stark
Freakwater play Friday, April 17, at 8:30 p.m. at the Great American Music Hall, 859 O'Farrell (at Polk). Richard Buckner and Clodhopper open. Tickets are $10; call 885-0750.