The best measure of a city’s character might be its attitude toward the country. Look at New York: Our bowling alleys have adjoining cigar bars; our Kmart is a subway stop; we serve okra as an appetizer (!); and our greatest bluesman is a freelancer at Details. When we New Yorkers think rural thoughts, we tend to condescend, carving out an ironic buffer zone as wide as the Hudson.
Tied more closely to the land around them, Chicago’s country-politans don’t seem to share in our irony problem. The Windy City’s new country scene does the rural thing tenderly and respectfully, and, typical of the Midwest’s recent batch of country rockers (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco), it avoids issues of authenticity by being neither painfully sincere nor defensively campy.
Take, for instance, Freakwater and the Handsome Family. These bands demonstrate the peculiar ways in which country music is being retooled for urban audiences without resorting to cosmopolitan sarcasm. The seven-year-old Freakwater shows its respect for old time and bluegrass by playing it faithfully while updating its sensibility. The quartet of vocalists-guitarists Janet Beveridge Bean and Catherine Ann Irwin, bassist David Wayne Gay and string wizard Max Konrad Johnston takes after the spirit of the Carter Family, nailing their complex harmonies and infusing the original songs with the impassive cool of alternative rock. The Handsome Family plays it cool in a completely different way. This husband-and-wife act sidesteps the authenticity issue altogether by avoiding most of the obvious characteristics of country music and confusing it with new wave. Freakwater and the Handsome Family are country, but in a new sense of the word: They ain’t, really.
Freakwater’s foundation is the partnership of Ms. Bean and Ms. Irwin, friends who have been singing together for close to 15 years. Though Ms. Bean lives in Chicago, where she drums for the longstanding psychedelic-rock act Eleventh Dream Day, her heart lives six hours south in Louisville, Ky., with Ms. Irwin and the duo’s beloved bluegrass. The band’s best record, Feels Like the Third Time -the source of their classic “My Old Drunk Friend”-was simple by-the-book Kentucky soul. Springtime (Thrill Jockey), Freakwater’s fifth LP, takes a few more chances. Former Wilco member Mr. Johnston, who was traded to Freakwater in 1995, is responsible for the band’s expanding sound, accommodating Ms. Bean and Ms. Irwin’s tentative forays into new kinds of songwriting with banjo, lap steel and fiddle. “Louisville Lip,” a Tammy Wynette-style tale of d-i-v-o-r-c-e, tells of rediscovering a hometown after a marriage goes to hell. The cliché-silly spiritual “Washed in the Blood” shows off the band’s love for the Louvin Brothers’ jazzy brimstone harmonies.
Freakwater earns extra points for knowing their history. Union organizers provided a political motive for 1940’s bluegrass in the same way that the civil rights movement sparked late-60’s soul. Ms. Bean and Ms. Irwin revisit the labor song on “One Big Union,” asking, “Which side are you on/ When it’s got more angles than a Pentagon?” And they revel in oddball country-and-western wordplay. The bouncy “Scamp” is a coded tribute to a certain make of 70’s auto: “My baby, he’s a Swinger/ And he’s hard to Dodge/ Kicking up gravel by the motor lodge/ My baby is a Demon, like to break my heart/ Shot through the arm with a poison Dart.”
Where Freakwater strives to mimic the finer points of Appalachian music, the Handsome Family seeks to distort them with a sound that walks the line between honky-tonk and electro-pop. Transplanted Texan Brett Sparks builds uncluttered accompaniment from guitars, autoharp and drum machines, and his lyric-writing spouse, Rennie Sparks, provides vignettes about levitating manic-depressives and the ghosts who haunt mental wards. With help from another Wilco member, Jeff Tweedy, and haunting production from new-wave revivalist Dave Trumfio, the Handsome Family’s third album, Through the Trees (Carrot Top), may be their most durable because it is their gloomiest.
Gloomy is something this couple does well. Mr. Sparks, a bipolar depressive, and Ms. Sparks, whose dreary and fantastic lyrics resemble the verse of Sylvia Plath, seem like a positive example of musical co-dependency. Appropriately, they lift only the bluesy sentiment of country music, avoiding its frills, until the only aspect of their sound that can be identified as rural is a kind of lonesome reverberation. The unlikely modern touches (electronic drums, melodica) serve only to transplant the music to a remote place, neither urban nor rural. Mr. Sparks’ low, nasal voice is lost somewhere between Calvin Johnson (of Beat Happening) and a swooning Merle Haggard. “Cathedrals,” perversely modeled on Curly Putman’s “Green, Green Grass of Home,” finds that lonesome interstice between the Cologne Cathedral and a Go Kart track in Wisconsin, where the protagonist goes in the off-season “hoping to find love under the icicles.” In “Weightless Again,” Mr. Sparks feels “Like those Indians/ Lost in the rain forest/ Forced to drag burning wood/ Wherever they went./ They had all forgotten/ How to start a fire.”
Chicago, the most rural American city, surrounded by corn, is probably the ideal place to put the Handsome Family’s and Freakwater’s new kind of country, because it doesn’t feel compelled to knock it down. Or as Catherine Irwin sings in “My Old Drunk Friend”: “I should’ve moved to New York City, but I never was that cool/ I just languished in the Midwest like some old romantic fool.”