Whether as a member of the beloved outsider folk outfit Freakwater or as a solo artist, Catherine Irwin has put together an extraordinary catalogue over her two-decade-plus career. Yet Irwin’s inarguable status as a major talent remains belied by the paradox of her relative obscurity.
In a just world all that would change with her most recent release, “Little Heater,” a remarkable collection of meditative ballads and soul-inflected laments, like the high lonesome “To Break Your Heart,” featuring backing vocals from her Louisville neighbor and reliable creative cousin Will Oldham. Oldham also contributes harmonies on the winning opening track “Mockingbird,” which recalls nothing so much as Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” duet with Johnny Cash on “Girl From the North Country.”
Perhaps most representative of Irwin’s worldview is the wonderful quasi-gospel lament “Save Our Ship,” whose chilling refrain “I always count on death to see me through” is characteristic of the artist’s spiritual posture — a kind of Buddhist remove commingled with a profound gallows humor. The brief closer, a lovely cover of the traditional murder ballad “The Banks of the Ohio,” makes for a fitting end and a solemn report from those whose deeds are unpardonable. Irwin deals frequently with the lost, the ungoverned and the irredeemable. It is a testament to her skill and humanity that even when considering the darkest corners of the human experience, there is always room for redemption in her songs.
“Mockingbird,” “To Break Your Heart,” “The Whole of the Law”