Freakwater, Borderline, London <!-- none onestar twostar threestar fourstar fivestar -->

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The Independent Culture

Freakwater these days are without the "alt", Kentucky bluegrass traditionalists of challenging sparseness. Though Catherine Irwin and Janet Bean, the childhood friends who are the band's core, began in Louisville's Eighties punk scene, its fieriness has left only faint traces.

Their 1989 debut predated Uncle Tupelo as a harbinger of alternative America's reembracing of country, giving them enduring respect. But as that scene has branched into the lush experiments of Wilco, while atrophying, too, into sub-Will Oldham, fake mountain-man cliché, Freakwater's decision to simply play country has left them isolated. And their status as pioneers clearly hasn't paid the bills.

The six-year gap between the new album, Thinking of You..., and its predecessor is largely explained by Bean taking a day job to support her family. The bare-bones nature of their tour is cheerfully explained: they won't have so much to lug across country by train. Without a prayer of finding the mainstream, Freakwater are Americana on the bottom rung, playing for love.

Jim Elkington, in support, opens to dolorous-voiced, decent effect. Freakwater then keep things simple. They begin with Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire", a last-minute choice with approximate harmonies.

This isn't a problem thereafter, though, as the pair's intertwined voices become the night's crucial fact. Bean, a short-haired blonde with Dusty Springfield-style, panda-eyed make-up which makes her look bruised and sad, sings low, then climbs into weeping, pure country wails. Irwin, obscured by a Cossack hat, has a harsher, cracked Kentucky tone. Their voices wrap around each other with old-time intimacy.

Freakwater's radical roots are revealed in their new bluegrass waltz, "Buckets of Oil", about "how much we hate the President". It finds Iraq's black gold being used "to grease up these gears, and shut down your mind". But its outrage doesn't penetrate.

"Right Brothers" comes closer to their core concerns, of strong women pleading for love. "Up to the highest star, down to the hotel bar," they sing, "to find someone who knows me."

But this music finally seems pinched and straitened, without true bluegrass's lonely depths. Its makers come across as engaging good ol' girls. But their sound remains polite. I've enjoyed Freakwater's company, but I leave them unmoved, and unchanged.