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Catherine Irwin
Cut Yourself A Switch
Thrill Jockey

Catherine Irwin claims she wears no undies. Taking her lead, fans had best not get their knickers twisted — the women of insurgent country duo Freakwater are not parting ways just because they're striking out on their own as solo artists. Irwin released her first solo LP, Cut Yourself a Switch, in October 2002. Partner Janet Bean releases her first solo album on April 8, 2003. (As Freakwater, the two have released six albums for Thrill Jockey since 1989; a seventh is planned for 2003.)

On her own here with Switch, Irwin continues Freakwater's tales of love, death and addiction. One of 2002's elite albums, Switch sounds as great on the first listen as it does on the 50th (and vice versa). Irwin's music tends toward "Old Timey," a flexible form with roots in English and Scots-Irish folk songs played on stringed instruments that has, over the centuries, integrated New World sounds (such as African American banjos). While Irwin preserves Old Time's antique quality, her music is relevant for contemporary audiences — it's simultaneously historical, modern and timeless.

One can imagine oddball director David Lynch loving this gothic record, with its haunting references to the blank eyes of dead loved ones and the burials of young girls. The album's opener, "Needle in the Haystack," is based on a tradition where farmers burned down their barns to scavenge for nails. But walking past San Francisco's tragic, heroin-addled corner at 16th and Mission, the song seems intended for other metaphorical implications around poverty, homelessness and needles, taking on urban significance as Irwin sings, "Needle in a haystack/ I hate to see my darling cry/ Needle in a haystack/ Tear his hair and like to die/ Needle in a haystack/ Burn the damn thing down/ And you'll find your precious needle/ Lying right there on the ground."

The Appalachian ache in Irwin's vocal combines with the sweetness and honesty imparted by her timbre. With the voice of an "everydaughter," she can sound otherworldly, like the Lord's minion or a ghost ("Hex"), like a vulnerable child or a prodigal daughter ("Dirty Little Snowman"), or like a sexy siren or broken-hearted woman ("Swan Dive"). She's also a gifted lyricist. In "Cry Our Little Eyes Out," with its fancy-fine acoustic guitar tweedles and twists, the lyrics are a salty salve to the wounded soul: "All those who stand and wait/ On the wrong side of the garden gate/ Where the roses grow and grow and grow/ They grow so high/ Crowns of thorns block out the sky."

All 12 songs are arresting, including five covers, which Irwin makes her own. "Will You Miss Me" is a 1928 Carter Family original. From the 1987 Elvis collection The Memphis Record comes "The Power of My Love." Roger Miller provided "Don't We All Have the Right to Be Wrong." The 1952 composition "You Belong to Me," recorded by Patti Page among others, came from Pee Wee King. In her cover of a song that Johnny Paycheck made famous, "The Only Hell My Momma Ever Raised," a pot-smokin' lady takes over as the bad-ass criminal: Irwin animates this characterization with the heart of a rabble-rousing country grrrl on her way to the pen.

Besides singing, Irwin plays guitar, banjo and bottleneck guitar. Freakwater's David Gay plays bass on some numbers; his Asheville-based band, Unholy Trio, joins in on "The Only Hell My Momma Ever Raised." Other guests include Lance Wille (accordion, drums), Morgan Greer (guitar), Audra Fleming (organ) and Cailen Campbell (fiddle).

Put Switch on to ruminate and reflect. While you're washing the dishes or cleaning the house, harmonize with the moody music or listen to Irwin's stories, as sweet as they are bitter. Maybe play it while journaling — you'll surely get good stuff on that blank paper glaring back at you, spurred on by Irwin's lovely and plaintive Americana.

by Jillian Steinberger

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