Kasey Chambers is big in Australia. The Aussie lass has sold lots of discs and won a butt-load of awards in her native country during the course of her 15 year recording career. Seven of her ten albums have hit the Australian top 10, including four that reached number one. Her latest, Bittersweet was released in August down under, and so far has peaked at number two on the charts. However, the best Chambers has done in the United States was cracking the top twenty once (Barricades & Brickwalls), and that was back in 2001. So far Bittersweet has not been made available in the United States.
The odd thing is that Chambers plays American roots music. She’s considered Country in Oz, but she shares little in common with the Nashville stars of today. Her music harkens back to the classic sounds of Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan. However, as Billy Joe Shaver recently noted, “Johnny Cash couldn’t get arrested these days”. The question of why Aussies appreciate American-style music more than Americans is hard to fathom. What matters though, is Chambers new disc mostly kicks butt. The record deserves a wider audience. That’s not to say there aren’t some questionable tunes. Chambers writes songs based on moments of inspiration, and let’s say some ideas are more revelatory than others. In particular, the two songs about God waver between the saccharine and the silly. “Christmas Day” turns the story of the birth of Jesus into a children’s story (“There’s a new boy in town / He’s gonna be hanging round / For a while”). The cut “Is God Real” takes the same juvenile perspective about holy matters. She even sings both tracks in a little girl voice.
For the other ten of the dozen tracks, Chambers takes on a more adult persona and sings with a deeper voice about heavier subjects, even when her lyrics get cheeky. So on “Stalker”, Chambers speculates about what crime she would have to commit to get the attention of fictional geek Spencer Reid, from television’s Criminal Minds. On the title cut, she duets with Bernard Fanning, and they sing about their relationship from a historical perspective. They both know that they will only end up disappointing each other again, but cannot break up. Or there is the very adult “Too Late To Save Me”, where Chambers is the opposite of the god-fearing girl from the previously mentioned sacred songs. “I spend my time upon my knees / But I’m not praying,” she sings from the narrative perspective of a prostitute. She’s not ashamed of what she does and indeed is even passionate about her life choice and independence.
Chambers frames Bittersweet with two very traditional sounding songs, albeit from two different sets of roots. “Oh Grace” that starts the album recalls the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers as she sings about true love from a man’s perspective while playing the banjo. At the other end, Chambers takes Dylan and his harmonica playing sound circa 1967 and jubilantly declares her vitality with a foot-stomping fervor. “With my finger on the trigger / I shot and I missed / I smoked like a chimney / I drank like a fish / I crashed I burned / I lost / But more than this / I’m alive!” she defiantly sings on “I’m Alive”. The placement of the two songs makes good sense. She begins by evoking the past and finishes by declaring she’s not done yet. Chambers doesn’t claim to be smart or right, she just lets you know she’ll be around for more.