Even the Warholian album cover can’t stop Tim O’Brien from looking like anything other than your dorky uncle, complete with wire rim glasses and chambray shirt. That said, this dorky uncle can make some damn good music, even after nearly thirty years in the business; in fact, Chameleon may be some of his best work to date, even if he’s veered from the traditional bluegrass that made him famous in the country music world. Here, the arrangements are more intimate than his last works (Fiddler’s Green and Cornbread Nation, both released in 2005); co-producers O’Brien and Gary Paczosa leave only the lightest touch on the tracks, letting the music speak for itself. And speak for itself it does, with O’Brien showing why he’s one of the best pickers in music as he plays the guitar, mandolin, fiddle, banjo, bouzouki, and mandola (I know those last two sound made up, but trust me: they are very real and O’Brien plays the hell out of them).
Despite the occasional foray into a Bill Monroe-esque high lonesome that is a keystone of traditional bluegrass, Chameleon sees O’Brien as more of a Woody Guthrie folkie type, dispensing both silliness and political commentary with a sly wink. “Get Out There and Dance” is a goofy little number that could be straight from Sesame Street: “Do it in a circle or do it in a square / Do it in a tux or in your underwear / Nobody’s watchin’, nobody cares / Just get out there and dance”. It’s definitely made for your inner four-year old. Or your actual four-year old, if you happen to have one floating around the house.
Some of the catchiest songs on Chameleon see O’Brien getting political, albeit with a wacky twist or two. “World of Trouble” has a little “Cotton-Eyed Joe” breakdown, this time with Osama bin Laden as the titular figure. “This World Was Made for Everyone” is deliberately reminiscent of Woody Guthrie’s “This Land is Your Land”; that is, cutting commentary combined with earwormy hooks, this time about Manifest Destiny, 19th century New England whaling practices, and air pollution. After all, as O’Brien sings, “This world was made for everyone / Especially for us”. George Bush, Clinton, Jesus, and Bob Geldof also get name-dropped in a couple of tracks which are equally chock-full of O’Brien’s whimsical and wry social observations.
Now it ain’t all fun and games from Mr. O’Brien here, and he shows he is in fact a Sensitive Guy with two songs, “Safe in Your Arms” and “The Only Way to Never Hurt”. Just from the titles, you can probably derive the not-so-original subject matter, but it’s O’Brien’s earnestness that keeps the songs from being the drippy mess they would be in the hands of just about anyone else. The fact that “Safe in Your Arms” starts out with an absolutely stunning a cappella verse doesn’t hurt either.
Chances are, if you’ve read this far, you’re already a fan of Tim O’Brien, so I don’t have to tell you that he’s a living legend who’s released about 11 billion records in the last few decades and won awards and accolades for most of them. But this might just be the best work he’s done since Two Journeys was released in 2001. O’Brien has definitely picked the right name for this new record, because in just the past few years we’ve seen him go from traditional bluegrass to Scots-Irish ballads to his current incarnation as witty folkie. Sure, he may be a chameleon, but let’s hope he stays this color for a while. It sure seems to suit him.