Album Review: Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson – “Rattlin’ Bones”

Juli Thanki | November 18th, 2008

Kasey Chambers and Shane NicolsonDuets 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.

4.5 Stars

  1. Kelly
    November 18, 2008 at 9:17 am

    This is my album of the year!

  2. Leeann Ward
    November 18, 2008 at 9:19 am

    Great review!! It’s no secret that I love this album though. I just keep loving it more and more as time goes on and want it to get as much attention as possible. I’ll have to admit that none of the album is weak to me at this point. Even the parts that I didn’t like as much at the beginning have grown on me.

  3. Leeann Ward
    November 18, 2008 at 9:27 am

    This may or may not be my album of the year too.:) Okay, who am I kidding? Of course it is!

  4. Glads Gal
    November 18, 2008 at 9:57 am

    This may get the proverbial stones tossed at me on here, but I’ll admit that I’m more of a neuvo pop country person than a traditionalist. I finally gave in and admitted how much I liked country (technically, I grew up on it and Southern Rock) on the heels of Shania’s rise to fame and in the midst of Faith’s stranglehood on radio. To many, that’s not real country, but I look at it this way: the world of country music is a huge and varied beast, and if that means that I’ve got years of discovering new music ahead of me, both new and old, then I’m in it to win it.

    That having been said, I’m blown away by these two fine folks. The 9513 has been singing their praises for a while now, and every time I’ve seen the topic, I’ve (incorrectly) thought: “Yeah, yeah. Banjos and twang and old school and blah.”

    I STAND CORRECTED.

    Chambers’ voice is amazing. It’s kind of like a countrier version of Amy Lee, with a dash less goth.

    Rattlin’ Bones is good “background music” for me. That’s not an offensive label in my world. I can’t work without some sort of music playing. For something to be good enough to keep my “attention” but not distracting enough to coerce me into a fit of desk chair dancing is both beneficial to my productivity and the springs on my chair.

    Point being, the two free tracks (thanks!) are wonderful and now I can’t wait to hear the rest. New music here I come!

  5. TAYERS
    November 18, 2008 at 10:38 am

    Thanks for the free music, by the way. I love this site.

  6. Rick
    November 18, 2008 at 11:36 am

    Very nice review, Juli. Kasey Chambers has always had the ability to recreate the sound and style of other artists with her own personal touch and uses that gift to great effect on “Rattlin’ Bones”. From the Carter Family, to Buddy and Julie Miller, to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris, to Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and maybe even a touch of Everly Brothers, this album’s got it all covered in a way that’s fresh. It is no doubt Kasey’s best effort since “Barricades and Brick Walls” and has been recognized as such by music fans down under.

    I would like to comment on Juli’s statement: “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.”
    I’ve been a big fan of Aussie country snce 2002 and have friends down under who share the best of Aussie country releases to keep me current. Because of the Nashville influence on their CMC “Country Music Channel” many of the new, younger artists are targeting a Nash-pop/rock sound that would be more at home on a Top 40 US country station than playing on a table radio at an outback cattle station. Hot new Aussie artist Talia Wittman claims Miranda Lambert as her primary influence, and Morgan Evans has a Keith Urban edge to his style. The Aussie country music scene is definitely moving in Nashville’s direction, which is a real shame.

    PS – My other favorite 2008 country album from Australia is “It’s Her Turn” by Kimber Sparks, which was produced and co-written by Kasey’s Dad Bill Chambers. I wish Sugar Hill would also license Kimber’s great album for US distribution at a reasonable price as I reckon fans of “Rattlin’ Bones” would enjoy it immensely.

  7. Juli
    November 18, 2008 at 1:46 pm

    Rick, thanks for the info on Australian country music. I like a lot of the Aussie music I’ve heard (which to be honest, isn’t much. Chambers, Slim Dusty, and Catherine Britt mostly. Nick Cave is certainly influenced by classic country and murder ballads, but his musical style is far more rock) but this news about the current Nashvillization of things saddens me.

    After listening to the clips on Kimber Sparks’ MySpace, I definitely want to hear more. She reminds me of a poppier Heather Myles.

  8. Amazace
    November 18, 2008 at 4:43 pm

    Rattlin’ Bones, A great album that has dominated the Americana chart, and will no doubt be in the top 10 albums of the AMA in 2008. I’ve been a fan of Kasey’s since her CD “The Captain in 2000. Fan of her Dad Bill Chambers too. I have discovered some other Australian artists you may be interested in. Adam Harvey, Troy Cassar-Daley, and Tom Curtain. Check them out when you get a chance, and let me know what you think. Again…a great review of Rattlin’ Bones.

  9. Rick
    November 18, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    Juli, Kimber Sparks released her debut EP “Go Get’em Girl” back in 2006 that did not have any involvement by Bill Chambers and those songs are not representative of the “It’s Her Turn” album. Kimber and Bill are synergistic together in somewhat the way Kasey and Shane are, but in a more Texas singer-songwriter sort of way since that’s Bill’s passion. The song that plays when you drop into Kimber’s MySpace page is off the new album and you can clearly hear Bill’s influence.

    It was actually my interest in Kasey Chambers’ music from her “The Captain” album that got me interested in Australian country. I love Kasey’s early work with her family’s “Dead Ringer Band” and own their four studio albums. Kasey’s music led me to become a Catherine Britt fan long before RCA released Catherine’s singles on radio here in the States. My enthusiasm for Catherine waned when she hooked up with Brett Beavers and released “Little Wildflower”, an album I don’t care much for.

    Amazace, I’m also a fan of Adam Harvey whom I refer to as “The Alan Jackson of Aussie Country” although Adam is now trying be be more “modern”. Adam’s “Workin’ Overtime” is one of the best country albums I own period. Troy Cassar-Daley has an affinity for the blues and funky soulful country music and when he toured the US Deep South awhile back he received an amazing reception. Adam and Troy are two of Australia’s top male country stars and have real talent (unlike say Lee Kernaghan, whom I think is over-rated). Tom Curtain is a real live cowboy artist and is not a major player in the Aussie country scene. Tom actually reminds me of an Aussie version of Trent Willmon! (lol)

  10. Sam G
    November 18, 2008 at 7:51 pm

    If it’s not the album of the year, it’s very close. There’s been a lot of good releases this year, fortunately.

    Nice review, and it’s always nice to find someone else who loves the “Begonias” CD.

  11. Amazace
    November 18, 2008 at 8:40 pm

    Yes Rick, I’m just getting into some of this Australian music, (other than the Chambers’ of course). I wouldn’t really compare them to any of the U.S Pop Country singers though.(Jackson or Willmon). Wasn’t impressed with Kernaghan either. Reminded of Garth Brooks chasing a Kangaroo. (that’s not a compliment;).

  12. Susan M. Cain
    November 18, 2008 at 10:14 pm

    I had the opportunity to work for Kasey Chambers while she toured in Florida. She and her entire band
    were Very Real and as nice as the tour was HOT.This was years ago and she has only ripen with age, this new stuff is excellent. Kudos Kasey!

    Sue

  13. Chad
    December 2, 2008 at 7:50 am

    Check out a few other aussies,

    Adam Brand (his last 2 cds have been excellent), Rob Black, Peter Denahy, Luke O’Shea, The McClymonts, Steve Forde, Troy Kemp, Beccy Cole, Jonah’s Road and Travis Collins.. A fwe of my local Favourites.. Also Check out Shea Fisher and Sinead Burgess…

  14. Stormy
    December 2, 2008 at 9:41 am

    I actually prefer Adam Harvey to Adam Brand. And Sara Storer and Catherine Britt are the two Aussie singers most commonly mentioned on Kasey’s boards.

  15. Chad
    December 2, 2008 at 11:45 am

    Yea, never been a great fan of Sara Storer.. Cathrine and Adam (Both adams) aer great performers. If ya havnt heard of any I recon check em out.. Some might be a bit Aussie for ya Yanks though.

    Got a good year ahead in Aus.. Brooks and Dunn coming back with Dirks Bently.

    And, CMC Rocks the Snowy’s.. All over 2 nights, has a great lineup..

    TAYLOR SWIFT, CORB LUND, PETE MURRAY, THE WAIFS, ASH GRUNWALD, STEVE FORDE, THE AUDREYS, THE SUNNY COWGIRLS, MORGAN EVANS, JASMINE RAE, AMBER LAWRENCE and JAKE NICKOLAI. Joe Nichols (USA), Deana Carter (USA), Old Crow Medicine Show (USA), Jonah’s Road, Mike Carr & Sinead Burgess.

  16. chris
    February 22, 2009 at 7:36 am

    What a great album! Definatly a classic. A marrige made in heaven. My three favourite songs are Rattlin’ Bones, Adeline and Sweetest Waste of Time, because it’s just so traditional and vintage and lovely but not sexually. It sounds like what an old couple would put on their for their aniversery.

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