The best acoustic American roots music comes from Australia these days.
The reality that Australian singer/songwriter Kasey Chambers creates great American music is now longer news. She’s been doing it since the late 1990s. Nor is the fact that she and her Aussie husband Shane Nicholson produce fantastic Appalachian-style tunes. The duo’s 2008 release, Rattlin’ Bones, clearly proved their mettle. What’s remarkable is that the two seem more authentic and gifted than any of Uncle Sam’s progeny. Their new album Wreck & Ruin clearly outshines any acoustic American country roots releases from this year. These wizards from Oz have brewed up the most potent blend of old school male/female duets since the days of Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. Global village, indeed!
The songs themselves frequently deal with the true and everlasting love the two share for each other. Sure, the material may border on the schmaltzy, but what keeps the music from being treacly are the sincerity in which it is sung, the sometimes coarseness of the homespun singing and playing, and the eccentricity in which they deliver the goods. The two find the purity playing in the dirt rather than ascending to a higher plane, thanks in large part to the banjo and fiddle playing that really grounds the sound.
So even when the duo compare themselves to “Adam and Eve”, the hymn-like cadences are offset by the strings so that the song is a country blues about living with “God on their tail” after eating forbidden fruit. And when they sing about “Your Sweet Love”, they note that love alone is not enough to save one from the problems of living. The world is too much with them (and us).
Of course, they also know how to party. The uptempo “Sick as a Dog” heralds the hangover that awaits but celebrates the manic fever of the moment. “Flat Nail Joe” lets the rhythms take one into the pleasures of just hanging out and being. The variety of the 13 self-penned songs lets the pair explore lots of different styles, but the results always showcase their male/female harmonizing. They sing in and out of each others’ voices, sometimes one taking the lead and then the other. The two as one become the smoky flavor in the musical whiskey that distillation highlights; the cauldron which transforms plain alcohol into something special.
When they imagine parting as “Familiar Strangers”, the singing connects them at the root. So even they trade tropes (“Like the curtain at the end of the show / Like the sound of a lonesome whistle blow”), they come off as a matched pair. Their familiarities overwhelm their estrangement, which deepens the sadness of the lyrics ( i.e., “a race in which everyone comes in last”). And when the pressures of life in a place scarred by nature become too much, as in “Dustbowl”, the two mostly sing as one to suggest shared misery is still misery.
Chambers’ brother Nash produced the record live in the studio on a ranch in rustic Australia. He includes snippets of people talking as the tape rolled before the music started to give the album an informal feeling. He also puts his sister’s banjo right out front as lead instrument. She’s ably joined by pickers John Bedggood (fiddle) and Jeb Cardwell. But hers and her husband’s singing is the main attraction here. The two make beautiful music together, country style. While it may seem strange that acoustic American styles have rooted in such a distant place, the flower is as sweet as any ever produced in the USA.