Fire and Ice

Fifteen years ago, Kasey Chambers was quite a story: A 25-year old Australian backwoods girl who grew up in a hippie/vagabond family that hunted foxes, knew their Johnny Cash and Hank Williams and lived in the wild for most of the year. When she launched her solo career in 2000, and became an Americana star in the USA with the release of The Captain, her songwriting ability, her Dolly Parton-meets-Lucinda Williams voice and a sagely, at times sepia, worldview all seemed fresh and beyond her years.

Now 38, divorced, a mom of three and dating a 26-year old musician, Chambers is back with her 7th solo record Bittersweet which like basically every record she’s ever made is well-arranged, extremely tuneful and decently well-recorded. The addition of producer Nick DiDia (brother Nash handled those duties in the past) who’s an American living in Australia, and who’s worked on all the Springsteen records since The Rising as well as much of the Pearl Jam catalog, several Mastodon albums and Eventually, one of the few listenable Paul Westerberg solo records, has brought new ideas to Chamber’s world. The bass thump, vocal reverb and spacious production of “Wheelbarrow” will be familiar to those who’ve heard the quasi-testifying tracks on Springsteen’s latest collections. The singer/songwriter has also assembled a talented, muscular band for these sessions which includes guitarists Bernard Fanning and Dan Kelly, drummer DeClan Kelly, her longtime collaborator, banjo, fiddle, mandolin string dude, Ashleigh Dallas and Matthew Englebrecht who plays the singular combination of bass and flugelhorn.

And yet, while the music here is well-crafted, twangy pop with rock and folk influences, the aptly named Bittersweet is easily the most lyrically confused record that Chambers, or any other pop music artist at her level, has released in recent memory.

On one hand in “Too Late to Save Me” we have the image of the desolate “whore” who laments she’s destined to “waste my time down on my knees/But I ain’t praying .” On the other, Chambers dives headfirst into religion. Not the Carter Family gospel of the old time country music that she loves and that rings true, but the overly simple babble of “Is God Real?” where she ponders omnipotence before asking, as a “little girl,” for “something, something, anything at all.” Or how about the love song, “I Would Do,” where she’s lyrically pictured hanging on the cross for love, followed by a quadruple refrain chorus of “Nails in My Hands.” In the opener, “Oh Grace” she’s ready to make that rarified state, “my wife.” And finally, in “Christmas Day,” she recounts how Mary “headed down to Bethlehem/To give this baby thing a try.” Wow.

Despite some well-placed, vehement cursing in the album’s closer, the defiant, Dylanesque howl, “I’m Alive,” and the dark, creepy vibe of “Stalker,” Bittersweet could be Chambers taking a crack at winning over the Contemporary Christian Music audience though I suspect they’re above this kind of sudden, childish pandering. Artists of a certain stature are responsible for making their own career moves, and this one is odd to say the least. Especially when we’re talking about a songwriter and a singer with this much talent and success. While country music has always struggled with good and evil, this is pop music wrestling with what I assume is Chambers’ split personality. If, to give her credit, this is her attempt to hint at the duality of mankind, the sacred and the profane, it comes off as ham-handed and silly.

Venere's picture

I have never heard of Kasey Chambers and I am not familiar with her music. Based on this review I probably won't bother listening to any samples. I don't even like "good" country music, so "bad" country music is really unappealing to me. But....I am writing to say that it is so refreshing to read a strongly negative review of any kind in the audio press (or almost any media format) these days, that I am thrilled to see this kind of pan. It often appears that reviewers now days are really just shills for the industry they cover. Now, if only we could see this kind of harsh criticism directed at some manufacturers and their products it would be truly groundbreaking. Surely every product that you guys review doesn't represent a new benchmark in performance. It sure seems that way sometimes.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

To be released no sooner than July 24. Maybe the review should have been held till then.

Saw her at the Independent, San Francisco. No amount of whiskey could make her (and her husband) sound good.

[flame deleted]

Kasey, once the most popular country artist in Australia, has outlived her brand's life (but that's when some musicians, like Merle Haggard, Bob Wills, Billy Joe Shaver or Billie Holiday, get interesting).

Am I the only one who thinks that The Captain, featured on the Sopranos, is about Jesus?

Frank.hardly's picture

38!? Gadzooks, I could have sworn she was 60 based on the cover photo. I've seen a lot more photo worthy 50 year olds. Not much of a testament to back woods Australian living.....

markotto's picture

I really can't say. I have never heard any of her music, but I am willing to give it a try. Please do something,anything, with the hair first!

pmk's picture

Unfortunate for this artist, but it is refreshing to read this kind of review. Not every artist puts out winners. It also lends credibility to the reviewer and helps a reader to find reviewers with similar tastes/inclinations. We all can't like every album.

I tried listening to Kasey Chambers earlier work a few years ago, but I didn't seem to click with her voice. Plenty of people I know that really like her though.

I enjoy your reviews, Robert. Thanks for including this one.

Osgood Crinkly III's picture

probably all Neil Young fans

funoka's picture

The Captain is a fantastic album and I'll listen to this one too, just to see what's she's up to. I saw her 15 years ago and she was fantastic on The Captain tour. Very friendly person, met the fans and signed a 9:30 Club flier for me. Her last few albums have not approached The Captain, but I wish her luck on her US tour.