Sugar Hill Records
4 stars (out of 5)
By Donald Teplyske
Over several months during 2001, I became aware of Kasey Chambers. First was a chance listen on the radio, a snippet of voice and sound that blended perfectly within the vibrant Americana sounds of the day while being so original, so unusual, that one noticed and asked, “Who is that?”
Then came second and third fortuitous encounters, eventually leading to some research to find out who was singing:
“And you be the Captain, and I’ll be no one
And you can carry me away if you want to,
and you can lay low,
Just like your father and if
I tread upon your feet you just say so,
‘Cos you’re the Captain, I am no one,
I tend to feel as though I owe one to you.”
I listened to a lot of Kasey Chambers over the next couple years, covers found on the Internet, The Captain album and its follow-up Barricades & Brickwalls. I was intrigued by the repeated connections to Fred Eaglesmith- she covered both “Freight Train” and “Water in the Fuel”- and Paul Kelly, as well as her penchant for Gram Parsons’ songs. Of course, there was that voice- somewhere between Rachel Sweet and Emmylou Harris circa 1978 and yet wholly unlike anything I had heard before- fresh and bold, plaintive and yet as warm as a cinnamon bun and just as fragrant.
But, strangely, I didn’t get past those first couple albums and onto those that followed. I never sought our Wayward Angel or Carnival and I’m not sure if I even noticed any of their songs. Either I lost interest in what she was doing or I became so overwhelmed by other music that I didn’t notice when they came out.
Still, I returned to the fold and purchased Rattlin’ Bones, her stripped down collaboration with spouse Shane Nicholson, and it became one of my favorite albums of 2008. When I found an import copy of Little Bird early this past spring, I hesitated only momentarily before paying the hefty ticket price. I wasn’t disappointed then and those positive vibes remained through several more listens throughout the summer and fall of 2011.
Little Bird received its North American release this past July.
Recorded in early 2010, Little Bird features 14 tracks (when the brief, hidden song appended to the album is included) recorded with a fairly consistent core band and several guest (mostly backing) vocalists of which only Patty Griffin’s name means anything to me.
There is a healthy dose of pop/rock influence in Chambers’ music, but it isn’t overbearing; the spirit of country and folk is alive and apparent in every song Chambers writes and every note she sings. Folks expecting anything more than fleeting connections to Lady Antebellum, The Band Perry, or Sugarland need to look elsewhere.
To my ears, Chambers’ sound hasn’t changed too much in the decade since I first heard her singing songs like “The Hard Way” and “Cry Like a Baby.” She sounds older and also wiser, more realistic, but every bit as vulnerable. This assuredness comes through plainly in the confidence- not to be mistaken for hardness- revealed on “Beautiful Mess.”
“I broke down like a babe with the hungriest belly / You make it all worth my while” could sound manipulative, but Chambers mixes sultriness with aggression revealing a strong inner core that plainly communicates that while she needs her lover, she is aware that he may not be the best for her: reciprocal loyalty counts for something.
Chambers doesn’t shy away from commercial considerations. “Someone Like Me,” I imagine, would sound at home on today’s country radio providing a bit of a palate cleanser from the more overt lite-pop inhabiting the playlists. Nicholson adds percussive brightness to a handful of songs- the album highlight “Devil On Your Back” for one- laying out some unpretentious, effective banjo fills.
The drumming on this album is pretty in your face; one imagines that John Watson has listened to more than a couple Waylon Jennings albums- Richie Albright’s heavy sound is all over Little Bird. Maybe this is the difference for me, what makes Little Bird a wonderful album to listen to while driving, what separates its obvious rock influences from the wimpy-arsed nonsense encountered on country radio. Like Elizabeth Cook’s Welder, this is an album recorded with some serious attitude. Balls, perhaps.
Even a song as gentle as “Somewhere,” the one featuring Patty Griffin on backing vox, brings a touch of realism and strength to its melancholy. As she sings elsewhere, the fairy tale is over.
“Train Wreck,” with flavors of surf guitar, could be an outtake from a Los Straitjackets guest session. “Invisible Girl” is perhaps a sister to “Not Pretty Enough” with its premise of one seeing right through, not noticing, another. I don’t think it would be legitimate to compare Chambers to Guy Clark, but his “Texas, 1947” came to mind as Chambers recited her memories of childhood on “Nullarbor (The Biggest Backyard.)”
A most satisfying creation from one of Americana’s (I know she’s Australian, dang it) brightest and most recognizable voices.