Good duo records are traditionally hard to come by, especially in the country or roots genres. True, there are exceptions to that rule. Robert Plant and Alison Krauss surprised everyone with with their sympathetic work on 2007’s Raising Sand, while Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell’s gorgeous Begonias was a bright spot in 2005. Plus, on any Buddy Miller disc you can always expect a welcome, healthy portion of Julie Miller (reportedly, we’ll get the gift of a true Buddy and Julie Miller disc in 2009). But by and large, records that focus on a true blend of male and female voices—rather than using one as the backing for the other—are few and far between.
So Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson’s Rattlin’ Bones surprises the listener not only by existing, but also by being one of the year’s strongest country releases. While they may have taken different career paths to get here (Chambers crafting four quality country-ish discs, Nicholson going a folk/alternative route), the husband/wife team possess obvious chemistry. If they’re reminiscent of anyone, it’s the aforementioned Buddy and Julie Miller in the way they attack each song head-on. And it’s not just that Chambers’s bold, brassy voice inhabits the same odd places as Julie Miller’s; she and Nicholson obviously enjoy singing with each other and finding unique ways to wind their voices around one another’s.
Chambers and Nicholson announce their presence with just that kind of authority on the disc’s opening title track. “Rattlin’ Bones” rocks harder than anything else on the record, laying waste to any notions that this might be a delicate affair, but it also establishes the basic Chambers and Nicholson template. The duo don’t just trade vocals, or harmonize, or alternate between the two. They playfully bat stanzas between themselves, pick vocal lines up from each other in midstream, and come together to harmonize in unexpected places.
From those heady beginnings, Rattlin’ Bones is a smart mixture of country, bluegrass, gospel, traditional singer-songwriter fare, and apparently anything else the pair can dredge up from their backgrounds. “Sweetest Waste of Time” adopts a gentle country lope, dripping pedal steel and a classic country vibe, while “Monkey on a Wire” features tense fiddle playing. The nimble banjo of “The House That Never Was” informs the pair’s meditation on homes without love, while the brooding arrangement and slightly distorted vocals of “Jackson Hole” strike out on a very modern highway. “The Devil’s Inside My Head” finds Chambers wailing a sinner’s lament over a breakneck banjo line.
And lest all this talk of the duo’s aggressiveness mislead anyone, let it be known that Rattlin’ Bones also contains moments of gorgeous restraint. “One More Year” is a tender acoustic tale of a woman trying to escape a self-made prison, while showstopper “No One Hurts Up Here” comes across like a plainspoken reassurance from beyond the grave.
Both Chambers and Nicholson have met with their own share of critical success, but it’s safe to say that Rattlin’ Bones is a surprise to fans of either camp. Not only do you get two songwriters coming together in a true stripped-down collaboration, but you also get two vocalists who obviously know their way around each others’ voices. Albums like this don’t come along often, and when they do, they get their hooks in you.