After years of playing second fiddle to mainstream Nashville, alt-country may finally be having its day in the national sun. The Album of the Yeear Grammy nomination for the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack — last year’s equivalent to the Gregorian-chant fad of 1994 — may be the most clear-cut illustration, but it’s not the only one. Choose an explanation: people’s need for comfort after Sept. 11, or the desire for music with more gravity and less gloss than middle-of-the-road country delivers at the moment. Whatever the reason, who would have imagined a year ago that a cult figure like Ryan Adams would be selling respectably, appearing on Saturday Night Live, and up for his own Grammy? Or that Sony Legacy would be preparing an anthology on Uncle Tupelo, the long-defunct, indie-label cult band that begat Wilco and Son Volt?
As the latter demonstrates, alt-country now has its own alternative history, its own legends and standard-bearers, its own mythic albums. (Steve Earle’s 1986 Guitar Town was given the deluxe remastered-edition treatment last month.) All the genre needs is a straight-up star who can lend the music a public face, and Kasey Chambers — who hails from Australia, a country long known for keeping the country-rock flame burning bright — just may be that person.
If you have heard Chambers before, it’s most likely thanks to The Sopranos, which last season used ”The Captain,” Chambers’ soothing ballad urging a friend to stand up for himself, at the conclusion of one episode. With its metronomic beat and breathy delivery, Chambers’ song was a little bit country, a little bit rock & roll, and a little bit singer-songwriter folk. The same goes for Barricades & Brickwalls, Chambers’ second disc, an album that explains the growing prominence of alt-country while at the same time raising a few questions about what this increasingly eclectic genre is.
Half of Barricades, for instance, plays like a distaff sequel to O Brother. Chambers has a voice as tender and comforting as Alison Krauss’, and when it’s backed up with acoustic instruments like dobros and gently picked guitars, the results aren’t that far off from the work of Krauss or Emmylou Harris. Forlorn ballads like ”Not Pretty Enough” and ”The Nullarbor Song” — the latter about Chambers’ childhood Down Under — are crystalline, understated weepers (Chambers has a fondness for variations on words like cry and tears). With patron and Nashville rebel mother Lucinda Williams harmonizing along, ”On a Bad Day” is a disconsolate slice of Appalachian melancholy with an audible ache in its heart.
These tracks are pleasant, pretty, and immaculately performed, and Chambers’ voice is a strong but restrained instrument. She never pours on the lung power too forcefully, and she wisely pulls back just when it seems as if she’s about to start sobbing.
But alt-country is supposed to be wilder, more shambolic than this, and it’s telling that Chambers’ music cuts deepest when she musses up her hair a little. On the title track, she’s determined to get her man, and her assertion that neither chains nor intimidation can keep her away is supported by lumbering guitars that could cut down trees. ”Runaway Train” crackles with a similar sexual tension and anti-unplugged ambience, while ”I Still Pray” is a moody piece of alt-gospel. When Nashville acts try experiments like these, they rarely sound so unvarnished. Nor would any Music Row thrush snarl a line like ”I found the answer but I never liked it”—from ”Crossfire,” a punkabilly spitfire on which Chambers is backed by the Living End, the Aussie Offspring.
As if to show her allegiance to all things non-Garth, Chambers pays tribute to two dissolute heroes of alt-country. ”A Little Bit Lonesome,” a slice of old-school, swinging-door honky-tonk in which she unleashes a modest yodel, is her attempt to write a Hank Williams song. She also honors the ghost of the late Gram Parsons with a faithful cover of his down-but-not-out ”Still Feeling Blue.” As you’d expect, both cuts are skillful and fastidious. But in saluting hell-raisers of country past, Chambers unintentionally illustrates she should be more of one herself. B