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Alice Stuart | Catherine Irwin 

All the Good Times | Cut Yourself a Switch

Wednesday, Dec 18 2002
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The plaintive female voice has long been a staple of the folk music scene. Joan Baez and Judy Collins provided its most polite, studious form, with various free-spirited gals tearing away at it ever since. In the early '60s, Seattle native Alice Stuart practically fell sideways into this historical time line. She mainly wanted somewhere cool to hang out, and since bongo-filled coffeehouses seemed like the swinging place to be, Stuart purchased a Burl Ives songbook and taught herself a few tunes. Following an invite to play at the prestigious Berkeley Folk Festival, she moved down to the Bay Area and became a leading foremother of the chicks-can-rock-too movement.

As heard on her recently reissued 1964 debut, All the Good Times, Stuart was remarkable in a variety of ways, not the least of which was her broad repertoire. Performing old Carter Family tunes, Tin Pan Alley standards, hillbilly yodels, and Furry Lewis blues numbers with equal aplomb, Stuart must have blown away her authenticity-obsessed audiences, back in the days when reissue labels were scarcely a twinkle on the horizon. Her familiarity with such arcane material came coupled with an adorably precious voice that made her assault on the male-dominated scene that much more brazen. Although she was 20 years old at the time of her first record, Stuart sounded 15, with an adolescent cheekiness that has echoed through the decades in the work of artists like Rachael Sweet, Bratmobile, and the Gossip.

By the time this rebel chirp reached Catherine Irwin, the Freakwater co-founder had transformed it into a sinister, bitter snarl. Irwin's powerful new solo album, Cut Yourself a Switch, follows in the path of her Chicago alt-hick band, updating the blues-country crossovers of the Great Depression in a savagely bleak, almost Bukowskian manner. In Irwin's world, bitterness and booze push lovers over the brink, her characters begging forgiveness while craving an extra dose of misery.

As on her Freakwater albums, Irwin shows she has a solid command of the conventions of old-fashioned country, making her stylistic distortions and embellishments seem plausible and fresh. On Cut Yourself a Switch, her mournful, midtempo approach dissuades listeners from taking her music as simple entertainment. The album is melodramatic and intelligent, emotionally raw and utterly convincing -- the perfect reflection of our increasingly gloomy times.

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Lawrence Kay

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