Album Review: Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson – “Rattlin’ Bones”
Duets have a long and illustrious history in country music, but they are also some of the hardest songs to execute well. For every “Whiskey Lullaby,” there’s a “Barroom Buddies.” On Rattlin’ Bones, husband and wife team Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson align themselves solely with the former. In fact, this may be the best country duets album since Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell’s 2005 stunner Begonias.
Chambers and Nicholson’s voices wrap around each other in ways that make their harmonies a pure delight to listen to, and the songs—all of which are written by Chambers and/or Nicholson—are simply remarkable, reminiscent of styles ranging from Byrds-era alternative country to the oldtime revival sound of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings.
Both halves of this pair have seen previous commercial success, Chambers more than her husband (formerly of marginal Australian rock band Pretty Violent Stain before deciding to go the more successful solo route in 2003), but together the two manage to be more than the sum of their parts, making their first joint album a must-have for fans of roots and oldtime music.
Rattlin’ Bones starts, appropriately, with the title track, the first song that the pair wrote together: “Smoke don’t rise, fuel don’t burn, sun don’t shine no more/Late one night, sorrow come ’round, scratching at my door.” The dark imagery, minimalist and mournful musical arrangement, and the obvious rapport between the two singers sets the tone for the rest of the record: a little eerie, a little depressing, but absolutely irresistible.
Continuing the album strictly in the Southern Gothic vein of its opening track might make Rattlin’ Bones merely pastiche; luckily, Chambers and Nicholson don’t limit themselves to just one facet of the country music tradition, instead borrowing from a number of styles and influences and integrating them into a cohesive whole despite often disparate subject matter and musical style–”One More Year,” for example, is a heartbreaking and sparse ballad about a slowly disintegrating relationship, one rendered even more heartbreaking by Chambers’ plaintive soprano as she “[hopes] that what we fear ain’t what we’ve become.”
While there’s not a bad song to be found on this album, there are some moments of weakness. Shane Nicholson takes the lead on “Monkey On A Wire,” but the song lacks punch until Chambers joins in on the chorus. And while the spiritual “No One Hurts up Here” is certainly beautiful, it feels out of place.
Despite these occasional missteps, the plusses of Rattlin’ Bones far outweigh the minuses–the strongest plus of the collection being the oldtimey, banjo-heavy, rafter rattler “The Devil’s Inside My Head,” which sounds straight out of some backwoods holler.
As easily as this duo can do fire and brimstone, it can transition to tender ballads. “The Sweetest Waste of Time” is a pedal steel-heavy love song made all the better by the obvious affection and devotion between the two singers. They’re not singing at each other, they’re singing to each other, a slight change in preposition that makes all the difference in the world when it comes to creating music that’s full of depth and passion.
There’s a sense of intimacy and warmth to Rattlin’ Bones that so many of the slick, overproduced albums straight out of Nashville are lacking. Gram-and-Emmylou-esque “The House That Never Was” features Nicholson and Chambers cracking up after the song gets off to a false start, while Chambers’ young son, Talon, ends the record with a charmingly off-key rendition of “No Depression in Heaven,” much to the amusement of his mum and step-dad.
It wouldn’t be exaggeration to suggest that Rattlin’ Bones is the album of Kasey Chambers’ career. Shane Nicholson seems to bring out the best in her vocally, and with her husband by her side Chambers seems to tone down the nasal “little girl voice” of her solo albums–a voice that often detracts from the strengths of her own songwriting. Though she’s already a roots music darling thanks to years of love from No Depression, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s this record that will catapult her to the top of the alt-country heap where she deserves to be, among the Tift Merritts and Kathleen Edwardses of the world.
It turns out that Rattlin’ Bones has already won an ARIA (Australian Recording Industry Association) Award for the best country release of 2008. After looking at wreckage of Wednesday’s CMA Awards, one can only wonder why the hell Australia seems to know what America doesn’t: good country music doesn’t involve a host of interchangeable blonde automatons and bad 80s rock bolstered with occasional pedal steel licks.
Forget the labels and call Rattlin’ Bones whatever you want: country, Americana (Australiana?), alt-country, it doesn’t matter. This album is damn fine music.
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