Kasey Chambers is a household name in Australia; she’s released eleven albums, and she’s been winning awards and selling millions of records for years. Still, her name is somewhat obscure in the States, and that’s honestly probably because she wouldn’t have that type of mainstream success here–her music ranges from more traditional, rootsy material to country rock to folk rock to the occasional country pop song to some blues, all of which are represented on this record, but the commonality in all of it is that it’s quite unpolished. Even the more pop-leaning offerings aren’t pop enough for the American mainstream, and so she remains as unknown to some as many of her independent American counterparts despite her success in her home country. It wasn’t until 2015’s excellent Bittersweet that I discovered Chambers and her music, and I’ve since found a lot to enjoy throughout her discography. She’s back now with a double album, which is always a risky undertaking, but for the most part, this is a strong one, and though there’s some filler, it’s minimal.
Disc 1: “The Sing Sing Sessions”
I separate this into two discs because this isn’t just a long album, it’s two albums with completely different producers that make a consistent, cohesive record despite themselves. I almost hesitate to rate this as one project, and the only reason I do is because you must buy them together. This first disc, dubbed “The Sing Sing sessions,” is the stronger of the two and was produced by Paul Kelly, another Australian household name. ON its own, I’d give it an 8.5 at least, maybe a 9.
This disc opens in fine fashion with the banjo that backs many of Kasey’s songs on the catchy, infectious “Pompeii.” I should mention that Kasey Chambers underwent nodule surgery between Bittersweet and the recording of this album, and her voice is definitely stronger. The new depth comes out in full force on the empowering, angry “Ain’t No Little Girl,” easily one of the standouts of this whole thing. If you single out one track of twenty, make it this one, and if you can afford two, “Jonestown” is the other crown jewel. This one tells a great story of a town where people take refuge from hardship and discrimination. It’s an excellent piece of songwriting, and it’s also beautiful melodically. I mentioned the sonic variety of Chambers, and it speaks to her talent that she can deliver equally great performances on a traditional song like this and the rocking, bluesy “Ain’t NO Little Girl.” She explores faith in many of her songs as well, and this album is no different; “Golden Rails” is a fun little gospel-infused tune that may not stand out on the first listen, but you’ll keep coming back to it for its catchy production and lyrics. Kasey also has a knack for story songs, and “Behind the Eyes of Henri Young” captures perfectly the emotion in the chilling tale of a seventeen-year-old boy who went to Alcatraz for petty theft and ended up dying there after being mistreated in prison. There’s also “Romeo & Juliet” featuring Irish singer-songwriter Foy Vance, which tells this story in a new, fresh way, although the lyrics can be admittedly hard to understand at first, and I wish Vance had been given more to do than just echoing chambers in the verses. Kasey also tells her own humorous story in “Talkin’ Baby Blues,” complete with running away from home at thirteen and dating a man who was “barely old enough to vote,” all while putting everything she felt down in song. “Summer Pillow” touches the slightly more pop leanings of Chambers, delivering a nice heartbreak song–“isn’t that life, to give me that, for just a minute and then take it back. Isn’t that love, to make me see everything that never will belong to me.” “You Ain’t worth Suffering for” is also basically pop rock, and this is the only moment of filler on this first disc, although it’s grown on me a little. Mainly, it’s the production here that doesn’t do it for me, and overall, this first half–well, eleven of the twenty, so slightly more than half–is quite strong and does a good job showcasing all the different styles explored by Kasey Chambers over the years. but it’s always a risk extending things and going for quantity, so it’s with that in mind that we head into Disc 2.
Disc 2: “The Foggy Mountain Sessions”
Disc 2, produced by Kasey’s brother and longtime producer Nash Chambers, opens just as strongly as the first, if not more so, with the excellent “Shackle and Chain.” With its call-and-response style lyrics and sparse production, it’s more akin to some of the material from Bittersweet,–which production wise was quite different from other Chambers albums–so if that’s the Kasey Chambers you were looking for, you’ll find more to appreciate on this half of the record. There’s the ever-building, almost Gothic “If I Died,” which sees Chambers issuing out some last requests–“If I died on the bayou, and the sun is goin’ down, would you float me like Moses, so they don’t put me in the cold, hard ground?” It’s got some very nice production which really makes the song, and I think Nash Chambers shines brightest on this track. There are also two great collaborations on this half; one is a banjo-driven gospel song called “NO Ordinary Man” featuring great harmonies from Harry Hookey, Vika Bull, and Linda Bull, and the other is a nice duet with Keith Urban called “If we Had a Child.” The latter has the same problem as the Foy Vance collaboration, however–Keith Urban’s contributions consist of nothing more than harmony and echoing Kasey, and I’d have liked to have heard more from him. The album closer is another version of “Ain’t no Little Girl,” this one called the “FM Lounge Version,” and basically, it boils down to being a subdued version of the song. I prefer the angry version, but both are nice, and both stand out and manage to sound unique, and it’s interesting to have two versions of the same song from two different producers which still serve to unite this whole record.
Disc 2, however, does have some filler. I would say that this second disc is a more consistent record production wise, and therefore, when you do hear the more country pop songs, they stick out on this half of the album. The lyrics in the title track and “satellite” are also pretty weak, and so for multiple reasons, these two just seem like filler on a twenty-track project. I love the production of “Annabelle,” but the lyrics here leave me wanting more too. I feel like it’s trying to tell a great story, but I’m just not getting it somehow. If I’m rating disc 2 by itself, it’s still a solid album, and it probably gets a 7.5.
People say that double albums always have too much filler, and I’d have to say this one does have a little. However, I wouldn’t say that Kasey Chambers made a mistake in releasing two separate discs because each disc represents a distinct style in production. I do think the first is stronger, but if you trim this down to traditional album length, ten to twelve songs, you leave out some good stuff, as well as possibly making the songs not flow as easily into each other being from two different producers. If you trim this down to fifteen songs, you have an excellent album, so maybe it’s a bit long at twenty, but again, it’s not your traditional double album with the different producers and styles, so I’m not sure that would flow as well either. As it is, we have a two-disc, twenty-track offering from Chambers, and for the most part, it’s very strong. It showcases a wide range of sounds, so there’s something here for everyone. The songwriting is solid throughout, and overall, I really enjoyed this record. Definitely recommend this both as a nice place to begin with Kasey Chambers and as a solid addition to her discography.