For those listeners old enough to remember those classic Nanci Griffith albums from the ’80s (Once in a Very Blue Moon, Last of the True Believers, Little Love Affairs), the latest Kasey Chambers release will serve as a welcome return to that thrilling country-folk-pop-rock sound of yesterday. On songs such as “Someone Like Me” and “Beautiful Mess”, Chambers’ sweet vocals and earnest declarations of love recall the best of Griffith and that era’s music.
For those too young to remember music from back then, these songs will be a revelation. Chambers wears her heart on her sleeve, even when she knows it will come back broken. That doesn’t mean she’s a pushover, just a romantic who chooses to act on her impulses. She conveys this with an angelic voice that suggests innocence even when she’s singing out of experience.
Chambers’ talents as a songwriter and performer allow her to take full advantage of this phenomenon. On the title track, “Little Bird”, Chambers croons self-effacing lyrics, in a little girl voice, about all the sacrifices she could make to get her boyfriend back. However, in a surprising twist, the chorus declares, “But I don’t want you that bad”. Sure, she could be the submissive girlfriend and get her man, but she understands that he is not worth the trouble.
Even on the songs of disappointment, such as the melancholy ballad “All Cried Out”, Chambers uses her voice to reflect a stoic optimism that makes her tears even more poignant. Patty Griffin chimes in and the bell-like qualities of their shimmering vocals suggest the crystallization of pain. The healing process that follows can now begin.
The Aussie gal also sings of home, most notably on “Nullarbor (The Biggest Backyard)”. She digs into her country past and remembers the red dirt, the shining sun, the empty space that led to the horizon, and reflects in the same way that a sailor does when looking out on the sea. The mix of personal memory and transcendental philosophy flows organically into a statement of what has been lost.
Chambers also rocks out. The bass-heavy “Train Wreck” rumbles down the track with the promise of menace. As the name suggests, one knows that the song about a fiery relationship is headed for disaster. While the song is not a misstep per se, there is something canned about it. That may be why Chambers tacks on more than two minutes of acoustic instrumental jamming at the end of the song. This livens up the proceedings and actually outshines what came before, but could easily be its own separate song.
While one can understand that Chambers does not want to always play the role of little girl — even that of the smartest little girl whose not so little anymore — her voice seems much more suited to that part. When she lowers her pitch and becomes the more mature rocker, Chambers runs the danger of sounding unexceptional. Songs such as “This Story” come off as generic as the title suggests.
Fortunately, this is not always the case. The rollicking “Down Here on Earth” resembles a feedback-laden Neil Young-type track (think “Like a Hurricane”). The bracing effect of a cut like that reveals that Chambers has considerable gifts and need not be pigeonholed as just one type of musician. She’s a little more country than rock and roll, but that may be changing.