Nick Tosches once called the postwar era "the beginning of the end of timelessness." In this frantic new age of mass media, he wrote, art has a shelf life, and the next big thing becomes a moldy oldie faster than the leaves can turn. Yet over the last decade Freakwater, the country quartet fronted by Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean, has consistently eluded the trap, writing traditional mountain music so deeply personal it can't help but connect solidly with the here and now. The band's fifth album, Springtime (Thrill Jockey), is more polished than any of its previous efforts, courtesy of producer and countrypolitan aficionado Brendan Burke, but Irwin's songs of longing and bitterness cut even closer to the bone than on the band's 1995 Old Paint. On "Picture in My Mind," the two-step that opens the new record, Irwin declares, "Whiskey is not evil when it's sitting on the shelf / I'm as sweet as I can be when I'm all by myself." "Louisville Lip" is a retelling of the legend that Muhammad Ali cast his gold medal into the Ohio River after being turned away from a diner in Irwin's hometown, and on the decidedly post-NAFTA "One Big Union" she snaps, "'Which Side Are You On' has got more angles than the Pentagon / Even one big union can't help us now." The chilling finale, "Flat Hand," is a junkie mother's lament for a long-gone son: "Blood of my blood is what you are / No wise man's gift sent from afar / Blood of my blood flows through your veins / And bound our hearts in crimson chains." Bean's harmonies are as beautiful and delicate as ever, but the standout performances come from new recruit Max Johnston (formerly of Uncle Tupelo and Wilco), who contributes sterling banjo and guitar work to "Scamp," "Slowride," and "Washed in the Blood." Friday, 10 PM, Double Door, 1572 N. Milwaukee; 773-489-3160. Saturday, 8 PM, Borders Books & Music, 1629 Orrington, Evanston; 847-733-8852. J.R. JONES
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Ivanna Biedermann.