Australian singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers is the Artist Who Made Lucinda Williams Cry. That juicy bit of press-kit fodder circulated back in 2000, when Chambers released her debut LP, The Captain, a winsome collection of doe-eyed country-folk that was equal parts cloying and convincing. On the LP’s best tracks, Chambers laid claim to her homeland’s great plastic pop tradition, occupying a twangier region on a musical map that also encompasses Men at Work, Midnight Oil, and Olivia Newton-John. Like her countrymen, Chambers appropriated a form with a well-defined national identity, reshaped it slightly to suit her idiosyncrasies (geographical references and some occasionally unvarnished Strine), and, for her not-bad efforts, was rewarded with hyperbolic reviews and Lucinda’s tears. Pretty good for a 24-year-old who spent her first nine years traveling the Nullarbor Plain without benefit of indoor plumbing or pedal steel.
Also no coincidence. Chambers is able to appropriate her chosen aesthetic successfully precisely because she comes from the land down under, where the cultural coordinates were Hunters and Collectors, Vegemite sandwiches, and Neighbors rather than Jason and the Scorchers, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Hee Haw reruns. Our crop of suburban cowboys labors under a curse of authenticity, debilitated by formal self-consciousness and afraid, apparently, to muck up what they perceive as having sprung fully formed out of the hydra whose heads represent an alt-country Mount Rushmore: Gram Parsons and Gene Clark, who created the music’s template, and Uncle Tupelo, the trio who cultivated No Depression to supposed near perfection and stole its good name from the Carter Family.
Since Uncle Tupelo’s demise, most of the smart alt-countriers have figured out that the best thing you can do in the shadow of the beast is to head for the hills: The Old 97s’ Rhett Miller livens up his c&w twang with powerpop hooks; founding Tupelo member Jeff Tweedy is at his best as a Paul Westerberg-style songwriter; and Ryan Adams should do more Elton John covers. Less smart ones make records so “real” they sound fake.
Regardless of her own studiousness and years in the biz (she fronted the Dead Ringer Band, a family act, for four albums), Chambers on record comes across all loose-limbed and casual, as if she’d only heard rumors of the aforementioned alt-country monster and had never even thought about spending a month working out the chord changes to the George Jones box set. To which the mere aficionado can only say: Well, good. Chambers’s two solo records are more fun than a barrel of Foster’s, mostly because she doesn’t sound daunted by the history of the music, whereas her country-folk-rock-whatever brethren seem to suffer from inferiority and oedipal complexes simultaneously: They’d like to kill their father-idols, but then how would they write their next albums?
Chambers, in contrast, knows that country form isn’t a straitjacket—it’s there to be manipulated. Witness the way strutting rockers like “Crossfire” and “Runaway Train,” from her fine new Barricades & Brickwalls, co-exist with a letter-perfect Hank Williams reproduction like “A Little Bit Lonesome” and a whole batch of radio-ready pop songs. This approach has antecedents, of course—in style if not substance. The Eagles (to whom, like it or not, the No Depression movement owes a debt of gratitude) were at their best at their most fraudulent, using revved-up twangs and close harmonies to light up FM dials in Camaros and Trans Ams and flatbed Fords in fast lanes everywhere. That said, Chambers is no fraud, unfortunately. She’s got a serious sincerity problem—sometimes her singing is so earnest, you’re glad she occasionally sounds like a high, lonesome Muppet. (Don’t fall for the “she sounds like Dolly Parton” line; that’s pure publicist fantasy.)
But on the new album, for every faux-Appalachian think piece like “I Still Pray,” which features martial drumming and raspy-voiced fellow Aussie Paul Kelly, or obligatory Parsons cover (“Still Feeling Blue”), there’s also a “Not Pretty Enough,” a borderline treacly anti-prom theme for all the poetry-reading cool girls who didn’t get dates: “Am I not pretty enough?/Is my heart too broken?/Do I cry too much?/Am I too outspoken?” It’s definitely a Juliana Hatfield if not Lisa Loeb kinda moment, but laced through Chambers’s airy, finger-picked guitar, it’s also gently affecting, just waiting to roll with the credits when John Hughes unreels his alt-country teen opus. Same goes for “This Mountain,” a ringing ballad wherein Chambers confides that she’s “as free as a bird,” without the slightest trace of self-consciousness.
The title track, though, is all piss and vinegar: a snarling, Steve Earle knockoff that borrows the lumbering cadence of old occasional cowpunks the Meat Puppets’ Nirvana-sanctioned “Lake of Fire.” Chambers offers up her cleverest lyric too, a murder ballad sung from the point of view of a defiant victim intent on seducing her attacker—maybe even after death. “You can chain me down on the edge of town/You can leave me there to die,” she wails. “But the railroad track will bring me back/When the lonesome whistle cries.” After that, Chambers’s claim that “I’ll be damned if you’re not my man/Before the sun goes down” works as a pretty spooky come-on. What part of “no” doesn’t she understand?
From the title on down, “Barricades and Brickwalls” also scans as a caustic response to Lucinda Williams’s more conventionally romantic “Concrete and Barbed Wire.” Where Williams pines away for her badass locked-up boyfriend (“Somewhere in Louisiana my sugar’s doing time/But he can’t spend time with me”), Chambers becomes the locked-up badass, not to mention a honky-tonk femme fatale, and potentially, a spectral stalker: “Barricades and brick walls won’t keep me from you,” she says, and you believe her. You even get the feeling she’d kick Jolene’s ass.
Chambers is a stylistic outsider, necessarily a pretender to a form that reifies “authenticity” and where hooks are frequently optional. She twists alt-country’s tropes—lonesome whistles, railroad tracks, finishing your chores before the sun goes down—into new shapes, a knack she shares with female fellow travelers Freakwater, credentialed indie rockers whose country signifies as drag, and the wondrous Iris Dement, whose efforts to politicize the form have made her a movement pariah.
Even better, sometimes Chambers just ignores the conventions altogether. “Am I Not Pretty Enough” would sound fine on the radio next to Britney’s “I’m Not a Girl, Not Yet a Woman.” And “Barricades and Brickwalls” could easily segue into some other moody, stomping rocker—Bad Company’s “Shooting Star,” say, or Nirvana’s “Rape Me,” a song whose perspective it shares and whose writer Chambers has likened to Gram Parsons. That’s a comparison Parsons would appreciate, since he knew that formal distinctions were for confounding. So does Kasey Chambers. You go, cowgirl.