Catherine Ann Irwin and Janet Beveridge Bean have been at this Freakwater thing since about 1988, which is pretty impressive when you stop to realize that Gram Parsons died after recording a total of two LPs with Emmylou Harris; George Jones and Tammy Wynette were together for only about six years; and even the Louvin Brothers' recording career tapped out after 14. Thinking of You . . . , which has a pointed cover image of heavily saturated red roses going up in flames, is the seventh studio release by this Kentucky-via-Illinois "old-time country combo," and the first since 1999's devastating, groundbreaking End Time. And there's the rub: As the first two sentences of this review demonstrate, it's not easy to describe Freakwater without lapsing into hollow superlatives and outlandish comparisons. More a fact of life than a force of nature, these two unapologetic grown women don't seem to care much whether anyone notices how great they are. They just do what they do, and if you're lucky enough to be there and have the stomach for their emotional roller coaster, they won't begrudge you the company.
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Each Freakwater disc finds Irwin and Bean wrestling their trademark open-throated harmonies, skewed perspectives and malicious wit into new settings, and Thinking of You . . . features sonic support from members of the affably weird Chicago avant-roots combo Califone, which does little to get in the way and much to check the duo's tendency to cleave to its inner skeleton. Freakwater has attempted to rock out before, but the breezy "Hi Ho Silver" ("high on pills") and "So Strange," with its overdriven organ solo and Elvis-in-Vegas propulsion, mark the first time the ladies have had backing to match their vocal and lyrical exuberance. Elsewhere, tears are jerked with less shame and to greater effect than ever before, no mean feat for these accomplished tragedians who once described their preferred genre as "dead baby songs." True to form, "Cathy Ann" is a heartbreaking ode to Woody Guthrie's young daughter who died of burns sustained in a house fire. Elsewhere, the verses of the self-flagellating "Sap" spin down a drain of weary, half-abandoned similes before flatly stating, "I know that I can make you laugh/I believe I know enough to make you cry." A little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.