Last Saturday was Record Store Day, and a time to celebrate everything that is great about pressing music to wax, committing it to tape or burning it to cd. It was also about all of the independent stores, from a strange local emporium, run by an equally strange beard-stroking muso whose knowledge of Japanese import-only 80’s electro is more extensive than is considered healthy, to the big-city boutiques that played host live sessions by the likes of Mr.Scruff and Billy Bragg. Audiophiles of all ages were able to pick up exclusive 7” pressings of new releases, but also to discover re-issues from the past that may perhaps have been forgotten. This year record store day coincided with the 20th anniversary of Thrill Jockey records, the highly regarded Chicago based independent label, and to commemorate this they are releasing four special-edition vinyl singles and albums, one of which is Feels Like the Third Time by Alt-Country trio Freakwater.
Although this album has been available on cd since its original release in 1993, this is the first time it’s been available on vinyl since the early 90’s, after a record plant fire disposed of all except the first delivery. Whilst the album has been re-mastered for vinyl, it’s heartening to see that the label and band have stayed true to the original track-listing and avoided the all too often pointless extra demos and outtakes that typically pepper re-issues. Indeed from first listen it becomes apparent that vinyl is the natural home for Freakwater’s loose, warm and emotive country-tinged songs that draw on the spirit of the likes of Hank Williams and The Carter Family in terms of song-craft and vocal delivery.
The album’s opening track ‘My Old Drunk Friend’ slopes along with an effortless swagger reminiscent of The Stones’ forays in stripped back-country, with co-vocalists Janet Bean and Catherine Irwin dancing and harmonizing like a more tasteful, heartfelt, and intriguing Jagger & Richards. Lyrically the track exhibits a certain wry-cynicism and honesty - lamenting on how “I should have moved to New York City, but I never was that cool, I just languished in Mid-west like some old romantic fool” - that perhaps shows why in the mid-90’s the band were firmly in the alternative camp, touring with Wilco and being profiled in Rolling Stone alongside Guided by Voices, whilst later being courted by Steve Earle’s label E-Squared.
While the strength’s of Bean & Irwin’s songwriting is evident on Feels like the First Time, the album is made all the more interesting through the band’s choice of country/Americana flavoured covers. ‘Put my Little Shoes Away’ is a gloriously authentic skiffle through Woody Guthrie territory, whilst ‘You’ve Never Been This Far Before’ takes Conway Twitty’s classic and makes it altogether more sharp, urgent and sensual, with picked guitar cutting across an almost sleazy vocal delivery. However, perhaps the standout track appears half way through the album, with a sparse and beautiful rendition of Nick Lowe’s ‘You Make Me’. It’s the only song on the album to feature just one guitar and voice, and only clocks in at 1.37. But it’s so wonderfully simple and bright compared from the darker alt-country sentiments of the rest of the album that it resonates long after it’s all to brief existence.
Whilst always strong from a lyrical and execution perspective, there are moments when some songs perhaps towards country twang a little too much. Tracks such as ‘Crazy Man’ and ‘Amelia Earhart’ find their themes lost a bit behind a structure and delivery that is almost too contrived and sounds a little like C&W by numbers, but there’s so much heart and quality on Feels Like the Third Time that Irwin, Bean & Gay can be forgiven the occasional lapse.
As the final track ‘Lullaby’ – a serenade from a broke and broken parent to her child, urging her to sleep so she won’t have see her mother cry – fades out to picked guitar and haunting falsetto, it is perhaps fitting that this album was given a chance to stand alongside the raft of new releases surrounding Record Store Day, and to find a new audience for a band that walked the line between alternative sentiment and old-school country stylistics with a sincerity and confidence that was as rare their first time as it is today.