As usual, Freakwater explores some dark subject matter, but always in a super-smart way. Irwin admits that much of the darkness comes from her own psyche. "I get these ideas stuck in my head and they get lodged there for a very long time," she says. "Unless we actually record the song, the idea will never go away. It's some kind of disorder."
On "Cricket Versus Ant," for example, Bean and Irwin retell the Aesop's fable about the ant who saved grain for the winter and the cricket who starved because he spent his summer making music.
"That story has always really tormented me," Irwin explains. "I've always hated it since I was a little kid. In the book I had, there was a picture of the cricket standing out in the cold with his little violin case while the ant was inside by the fire. The ant had no compassion whatsoever, and I felt that the cricket needed to be avenged."
On "Cathy Ann," Freakwater tells the story of Woody Guthrie's daughter who died at an early age.
"I'm a huge Woody Guthrie freak," Irwin says. "One of his children died in a tragic fire. It's an awful, awful story. My love of Woody Guthrie combined with the fact that it's also my name made it a perfect subject for me."
Freakwater also takes a political turn on "Thinking of You" and the duo's anger at the current state of American leadership shines through loud and clear on the track, "Buckets of Oil."
"There were a lot of obscenities that needed to be taken out," Irwin says. "There was also a lot of stuff that I found out later was illegal to say. As far as political songs go, it's always a challenge to keep the self-righteousness down to such a level that it doesn't become a parody."
Things lighten up quite a bit on "So Strange," a perky song that'll make you check your iPod to see if it accidentally skipped to the next artist. It's a giddy slice of '50s pop that lightens the mood quite a bit for this often somber and morose act.
"We wanted it to be kind of like an Elvis movie song with Ann Margaret dancing by the pool," Irwin explains.
"It's perky, but it's also about killing," Bean adds defensively as if to protect Freakwater's dark reputation.
In order to get your hands around Freakwater and appreciate the intelligence behind the musical simplicity, it helps to pay close attention to the lyrics. This is never more apparent than on the brilliant Skeeter Davis-inspired track "Sap" as well as the disc's other upbeat number, "Upside Down," in which some obtuse imagery paints a vivid picture.
"A friend of mine's grandmother used to say 'The early bird catches the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese.' The idea was the second mouse climbs over the body of the dead first mouse after the trap is set off. Janet refused to sing the word 'cheese.' Instead, we said that "For the second mouse, they're gonna throw the red carpet down.' The red carpet is the bloody pelt of the first mouse, which was actually even better."
Bean adds, "Catherine has a love of the novelty song, and there's an element of that song that's kind of novel."
In support of the new album, Freakwater is poised to embark on an ambitious tour that will touch all four corners of the United States. Irwin and Bean will be joined by bassist Dave Gay and pedal steel maestro Steve Dorocke.
Both Bean and Irwin admit some trepidation surrounding a nationwide tour. They're the first to admit that sleeping in a van and subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches was much easier in their youths.
"The concept of a tour is ridiculous," Bean says. "You're putting four grown people in a vehicle together for long periods of time, and it just creates silliness, which can be kind of enjoyable. We're all around the same age (Gay and Dorocke are both 50), so it's not like one of us is really young and wanting to kick it up. We'll probably all have to stop to go to the bathroom every 10 miles."
It's unlikely that a grueling tour will do much harm to Freakwater. The duo of Bean and Irwin have been performing and recording alternative country music before there was even a name for the genre. To what do they owe their longevity?
"I think the thing we cite a lot is that we never had specific goals, so we were never disappointed," Bean says.
Irwin chimes in, "That's because we were never setting ourselves up to be disappointed. We never said, 'This is 2003, the year we're going to be on the Grand Ole Opry.' Anything that happens is something we never really tried for, so we're always coming out ahead."
Bean concludes, "I'm not proud so much that we pre-date the term alternative country, but I am proud that we still exist."