Catherine Irwin’s Little Heater is an sophomore album many years in the making, though it wouldn’t sound too fundamentally different from a re-mastered June Carter collection. Irwin, who was an original pioneer of alt-country as half of the ‘90s Chicago duo Freakwater, has played a main role in just two albums since the turn of the century: Freakwater’s last LP in 2005 and her 2002 solo debut, Cut Yourself a Switch.
As we now know, “country” has become an exponentially broader word since Freakwater’s 1989 debut, but 23 years later, Irwin has opted to hang back. And as any American country or folk songwriting purist would tell you, Irwin’s the goods, so any effort of hers is almost certain to be a welcome one so long as she brings along her vocal cords and six strings – even if she’s done pushing boundaries.
Irwin built this album with little more than that, which is just fine, because there’s nothing here that will inspire any dancing, or that’s upbeat at all really. Her world on Little Heater is strictly one for sinners seeking repentance, or at the very least reflection – “Turn the water into wine and turn it back again / Turn all the milk to gasoline and turn this piss to gin,” goes one particularly striking lyric. Combining her veteran cracking voice with Little Heater’s underlying heavy-heartedness, and these 13 songs are as bare bones, drowning-sorrows-in-a-Nashville-dive-bar “country” as they come.
Irwin assembled a solid team of ringers, including Bonnie “Prince” Billy, to fill out Little Heater’s more delicate details – banjo, pedal steel, and fiddle show up on cue here and there with lovely results, but never to the point of distracting from the album’s foundation of Irwin and her acoustic guitar just singing away their woes to each other.
Essential Tracks: “Save Our Ship”, “The Whole of the Law”