[4 October 2006]
The novelty of Kasey Chambers as an Americana country music-style artist who hails from Down Under has passed. Her first three solo albums revealed that she is more than just something different, but a major talent who belongs in the company of such wonderful artists that work in the same vein, like Patty Griffin, Lucinda Williams, and Lyle Lovett. Chambers’ latest disc shows that she’s still at the top of her game.
On Carnival, Chambers constructs her songs like little one-act plays that star her heart on her sleeve. Her material starts with a solid foundation that emphasizes the beat and then rhythmically builds and blossoms into melodies and choruses. Meanwhile, the Aussie lass writes lyrics full of word play and conflicted feelings. She knows that yearning itself can be a release and a relief; that one has mixed emotions, even when in love. Oh, and Chambers believes in Romantic Love in a way that others believe in religious salvation. She even appropriates the language of the Church to describe her own devotion to another human being. Her lovers are literally her saviors.
Several songs express this idea, but perhaps the best example can be found on the buoyant spiritual, “Sign on the Door”. The song begins with Chambers confessing her sins, but the listener knows this won’t last. There is something in the music that cues one that happiness is just around the corner. Chambers does thank the Lord because she has discovered true love, but the emphasis is on the human affection she has found rather than G-d’s grace. While on the surface Chambers’ commitment to love may seem conservative and conventional, the deeper message suggests the opposite. Human love replaces the love of G-d. On other songs she invokes angels, sin, the soul, and such, but the purpose is always the same. She’s sanctifying love rather than proclaiming religious truths for their own sake. “Light up a candle and let it burn out,” she sings elsewhere. It’s a useless offering whose only significance is ritualistic. She puts her faith in love
The other theme that shows up repeatedly on Carnival concerns “breaking”, as in breaking up, having a broken heart, breaking loose from social conventions, being broken in spirit, etc. This works in two ways, as both a pain and a promise. It separates one from one’s previous existence and it allows one to start fresh. The sensibility of endings and new beginnings gives the disc a hopeful edge, even though many of the songs have gloomy introductions. Chambers knows that “to go down easy is the hardest way to go.” A clean break is always best.
The album’s production, by Kasey’s brother Nash, contains many little hidden thrills for the attentive listener. Everything from the steel on steel sound effects on “Railroad” to the sound of a baby talking that frames “Light Up a Candle” compliments Chambers’ vocals and the words to the songs in a way reminiscent of T-Bone Burnett’s work with Sam Phillips. On the larger scale, Nash creates different sonic schemes, from the Steely Dan style jazzbo accents of “Don’t Look So Sad” to the retro-rockabilly of “I Got You Now” that lets each instrument breathe and announce itself clearly. He separates each sound rather than blend them together to create a bright presentation. This allows his sister’s voice to function just like another musical instrument, although clearly in the forefront as the main event.
Fortunately, Kasey has the chops. She sometimes swings and bends the notes and other times lets her voice break for emphasis, but her phrasing is always spot on. Chambers always sings with authority, even if she comes across as more of a honky tonk angel than one of the heavenly kind.