It’s been exactly 10 years since I interviewed Australian singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers for the pages of Ink 19 (so long ago there were still actual pages if I recall correctly). A lot has changed in those 10 years. Chambers, who was touring behind her first solo album The Captain at the time, has released six more albums including her latest, gotten married to fellow Aussie (and Neil Finn vocal doppelganger) Shane Nicholson, and had a baby.
But on her latest disc not much has changed at all. Chambers’ songs still sound like a breath of fresh air and exude the same little girl charm as the tunes on that first record. As she did on The Captain, she even sings a song about the Nullarbor Plain, southern Australia’s nearly uninhabitable desert where Chambers spent the first nine years of her life as her family hunted foxes for a living. Not the typical upbringing for a country singer. But those early years also involved plenty of campfire sing-a-longs with the folks. Upon their return to civilization, the family formed the award-winning country music group The Dead Ringer Band with Kasey as lead singer.
If Chambers ever writes a Broadway musical about her life (and she easily could), you can imagine Little Bird‘s “Nullarbor (The Biggest Backyard)” as a show-stopper with the main character center stage belting out this open-hearted, open-throated, sweet reminiscence of the inhospitable place she once called home, accompanied by a loping banjo and some pretty dobro.
Set closer, “The Stupid Things I Do” has some of that same open-hearted sweetness and vulnerability. “These are the stupid things that I do because I love you,” Chambers sings. “Talking too much but forgetting my name.”
“Invisible Girl” is another tune here that could work well on a Broadway stage. “Bring Back My Heart” on the other hand detours into classic ’50s and ’60s country and pop. It sounds something like if Leslie Gore, Brenda Lee, and Loretta Lynn took a Polynesian road trip. It also features a most unexpected but entirely welcome trumpet solo.
But it’s songs like the mandolin-enhanced opener “Someone Like Me” that are the bread and butter of the record. It’s a sweet love song with beautiful harmonies. “You’re the song stuck in my head that will never go away,” Chambers sings. “You’re the one who makes me wanna be just the way I am.”
Chambers seems to play up her Australian accent a bit more than usual on the album’s first single “Beautiful Mess,” which features one of the record’s catchiest, stick-in-your-head choruses. “Everything about you is worth my while,” she sings.
“Devil on Your Back” offers words of encouragement to someone with the weight of the world on their shoulders. “Everything is gonna be just fine,” Chambers sings. This jolly tune with banjo, fiddles, twangy guitars, and terrific harmonies might just make you believe it.
“Somewhere” has an entirely different vibe. It’s a stark ballad on which Chambers sings about being “all cried out.” An obvious influence, Patty Griffin provides backing vocals. It’s pretty, but a tad lacking in specificity to really resonate.
“Come down from your high horse,” Chambers sings on the harder-edged “Down Here on Earth,” which owes a debt to the rockier side of Julie Miller (she worked with Julie and husband Buddy on The Captain) and offers a nifty guitar workout. Jim Moginie of Midnight Oil, Kasey’s dad Bill Chambers, and hubby Shane Nicholson contribute most of the string-based instruments on the record.
Chambers brings out a yodel for “Train Wreck,” a barnstorming rocker and vocal tour de force that at times brings to mind Exene Cervenka of X. It also features another great extended guitar workout.
With a terrific backbeat and just the right amount of twang, “This Story” is one of the tunes on the record that puts it all together in appealing ways as only Chambers can.
But Little Bird is not without its share of missteps and head-scratchers too. Chambers’ change of pace motor-mouth delivery on the title track owes something to the work of Alanis Morissette. Unfortunately, it’s a tad too repetitive as well.
The pedal steel-tinged duet “Love Like a Hurricane” is a rather too obvious tear-in-my-beer collection of similes that resembles something Ryan Adams might have cranked out back before he discovered The Grateful Dead.
And “Georgia Brown” is an unfortunate detour into inauthentic, cornpone country.
Chambers’ songs work best when she avoids the clichés and brings her own unique experiences to the well-worn country music idiom. Her fascinating life story and sunny outlook should make it worth checking in on her again in another ten years or so. Maybe by then, “The Kasey Chambers Story” will be opening on Broadway. And Ink 19 will be published on intercranial holographic tablets or something.
Kasey Chambers: www.kaseychambers.com