The biggest critical struggle for alt-country vets Freakwater, it seems, is convincing critics that they haven’t been making the same album over and over again since their 1989 self-titled debut. For most critics, as well as fans, Freakwater peaked in 1995 with their fourth and best received album, Old Paint. It’s the only album in their catalog that has been deemed worthy of a reissue and, since then, all efforts to top that success have been met with a relatively lukewarm critical reception with the same basic premise: Freakwater is a one-trick-pony; they have a few elements in their music that they’ve mastered: that old-timey Appalachian-folk sound in the vein of Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, and Uncle Tupelo, and most famously, the harmonic interplays between the two lead vocalists and sole longstanding members of Freakwater, Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean—by far their biggest musical strength. But, as the story goes, they’ve yet to do anything new or interesting with those elements since the mid-‘90s.
Scheherazade is the band’s first release since 2005’s Thinking Of You…, which puts it in a unique position. With scores of bands from all genres releasing comeback albums these past few years, most of these records fall into one of two categories: either the long break has caused its members to reevaluate their sound and they come out with something innovative and new, or more commonly, the band releases the album they would have come out with anyway had they not gone on hiatus. Scheherazade contains elements of both of these potential outcomes. Some songs exhibit a growth in songwriting and a maturation of ideas while others could easily pass as B-sides from any of their earlier albums.
The highlight that best exemplifies a step forward for Freakwater is “Down Will Come Baby,” a psychedelic stomp that proves that the band should attempt these sorts of upbeat experiments more often. I personally suspect that Warren Ellis’ (Dirty Three, Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds, Grinderman) involvement is responsible for the track’s success, as its vibe is reminiscent of the gothic-folk-garage rock of his other projects. It’s all too easy to picture “Down Will Come Baby” as a latter-day Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds track. But Freakwater does manage to make the song its own, mostly due to their vocal talents of their two lead singers, which throughout all of Schehrazade call to mind the style of other female vocal twosomes, Sleater-Kinney’s Carrie Brownstein and Corin Tuckker, as well as Tegan and Sara Quin.
Despite the fact that tracks like “Take Me With You” and “Bolshevik And Bollweevil” very much tread the same ground as much of their previous releases, overall, Scheherazade is a pleasant listen that shows promise for Freakwater going forward—an impressive feat for a band that’s been around for over 25 years.