I’ve spent much of my time on this site reviewing certain books I’ve read or listened to, with the occasional movie review thrown in. I’d do more film reviews if I had the opportunity to watch more films. I had also anticipated doing reviews of albums whether old or new, as it is far easier for me to pick up a new CD than to hire a babysitter, schedule my time off with my wife’s time off with the schedule for the film we’d like to see, etc.
But I had the idea when I started this site that not only would I review things I would also comment on the day to day stuff, the songs I put on repeat on my CD player, the albums I couldn’t get enough of listening to, the guilty pleasure from renting out the DVD box set of season one of Sanford & Son from the library. That kind of thing.
Those were intended to be the Latest Obsession part of this gig. When I first envisioned it, there was a song by the band Songs:Ohia that I couldn’t stop listening to. I would drive home from work after listening to that one song for about half an hour straight, and I would put the car CD player on repeat and sing along, belting it out repeatedly for the twenty minutes it took to get home.
I was obsessed by that song. There was just something aobut Jason Molina’s voice that tore me up inside. Something that spoke to a certain period of my life, a certain emotional level when you get down very very very low, yet not low enough to lose hope just yet.
I never got around to writing about that obsession and eventually it passed.
As a way of getting ready for the release of Kasey Chambers’ third album, Wayward Angel, I went back and relistened to the others that I own, as I usually do when I know a new album is going to come out. And they sucked me in. More specifically, the first album, The Captain did and the second album was an accessory after the fact. There’s an elemental purity to this first album that is there precisely because it defies expectations. The second album, while completely enjoyable, is a little less memorable, possibly due to that sophomore expectation.
From the first track, the rousing “Cry Like A Baby,” Chambers introduces herself with the lines “Well I'm not much like my generation / Their music only hurts my ears / And I don't hide my pain to save my reputation / It's too hard to keep up with these years.” Chambers’ own music is a poppy blend of country and rock that is indeed unlike what most of her contemporaries are producing and listening to, yet it isn’t so unlike what you’ve heard as to be alienating and a curiosity. It’s too good to get airplay on country music stations with their pre-fabbed hit machiens like Shania Twain, Faith Hill, etc.
The catchiness continues with the album’s second track, the eponymous “The Captain,” an ode to self-negation that is oddly romantic and ultimately triumphant. Between these two openers and the two closers, Chambers puts together some of the most entertaining alt-country out there. She’s young, so her somewhat frequent dipping toward lyrical cliché can be forgiven if she improves with time. This first album was written when she was only 19, so I think a little leeway is in order.
The final two tracks of the album are diametrically opposed. “Don’t Go” could come off as a typical breaking-up-don’t-leave-me song, though its spare arrangement and Chambers’ hauntingly sweet voice and rhyme structure lift it above and beyond. Knowing Chambers’ biography, there’s more to the song than simple romantic dissolution.
As you’re disappearing I'm hearing
All I wanted you to say
I should focus more on the thought of
letting you just slip away
But I get this strange feeling you’re not revealing
Everything you wanted to say
So it's just a little harder for me to play the part of
Watching you walk away
So before you disappear again
Just think of what you're feeling and don't go
There's more to what you’re telling me
I'm not buy what you're selling me -- don't go.
This tender ballad is quickly shoved out of your memory by the rollicking last song “We’re All Gonna Die Someday” which I can only assume Chambers uses as a set closer in concert. I dare you to listen to this song without tapping your feet and singing along with the cheeky chorus. It can’t be done.
Her second album Barricades & Brickwalls is more country than pop where The Captain reversed that equation. Some enterprising reviewer, on the eve of Chambers touring with Lucinda Williams dubbed the Australian import the “next Lucinda Williams.” The comparison couldn’t be less apt. Listening to Williams is like listening to the very sexy moans of a dying but horny vamp. Even Chambers’ saddest songs sparkle with her crystal-bright voice. Chambers could better be described as Ani DiFranco if she were raised from childhood by Dolly Parton.
Some of the country on this album is a bit of the country-fried-rock genre and the opening track’s sizzling guitar drives that point home very nicely as Chambers’ belts out lyrics that would make a stalker proud:
Barricades and brickwalls
won't keep me from you
You can tie me down on the railroad track
You can let that freight train lose
Iron bars and big ole cars
Won't run me out of town
I'll be damned if you're not my man
Before the sun goes down
She repeats her trick of the first album, following this number with the question song “Not Pretty Enough.” This song is touching in its naïve heartbroken way, the dumped trying to figure out what’s wrong with her and not what’s wrong with the guy who dumped her. Chambers gets hers back and gives a big tip o’ the ten-gallon to old time honky-tonk in track five, “A Little Bit Lonesome” that sounds like something Hank Williams Sr. might have written.
I'm a little bit lonesome
I'm a little bit blue
I can't stop crying
Since I lost you
There's a pain in my heart
Like a lightening bolt
I'm a little bit lonesome
It's all your fault
It looks easier than it is, I'm sure.
Barricades & Brickwalls’ most jarring note is the hidden track that comes after a solid minute or so of silence at the end of what is, on paper, the last song on the album. I rarely listen to this, the preachy and didactic “Ignorance.” This song comes off as wanting to be profoundly interested in the plight of the world yet is more a list of modern evils. She manages to shoehorn in starving Cambodians, the Columbine shootings, racism, selling your soul for money, nuclear bombs, waste, and making children cry into one tight little package of a number Ani DiFranco would have written when she was thirteen. The fact that this song was a “hidden” number suggests either Chambers’ own discomfort with a weaker offering, or the producer’s not so subtle banishment. The song’s best moment is the rather obvious and oft-repeated truism “If you're not pissed off at the world / Then you're just not paying attention.”
If you haven't heard Kasey Chambers, then you're not paying attention.