Rattlin’ Bones, the new album from Kasey Chambers and her husband Shane Nicholson is a quite reminder of how good a country album can be when it is stripped back to its purist and most simple form. Rootsy, almost bluegrass, instrumentation permeates the entire release giving it an Appalachian feel that is accentuated by an abundance of minor key ballads. It ties together nearly a century of roots music, pulling influence from everyone from The Carter Family to Faithless Street era Whiskeytown. This autumnal release catches the seasonal mood, calling for us to slow down, pause for a moment and take a listen. And what it says carries quite a punch, full of haunting poetry and glowing imagery.
Rattlin’ Bones find Chambers and Nicholson mixing metaphors easily, but never carelessly, coming up with newly remarkable ways to illuminate the mundane. “One More Year” opens with “he was walking across the wire/holding a loaded gun/taking out every light bulb one by one” and meanders lightly through the jagged edges of a relationship on the brink of collapse before pulling back out to “she is walking across the wire/holding a loaded gun/hoping that what we fear ain’t what we become.” The casual shifting from unexpected ending to unexpected mixing of clichés draws us in to find the truth that makes such phrases commonplace. The album is a careful study of love, and how love reacts when it is exposed the harsher, colder air in the world viewed through a pain of glass as thin and bright as the chimney of a kerosene lamp. It’s a partnership that works, giving Kasey Chambers the most solid and cohesive collection of songs of her career.
The key to every great Kasey Chambers album has always been her voice, and it is in its full glory here, as delicate and soaring as a sparrow. More surprising is Shane Nicholson, who has sometimes been dry and generic in his solo work, but who comes alive here somewhere between Colin Raye and John Denver with a delivery not unlike that of Bruce Robison in some places. Tracks like Wildflower, Rattlin’ Bones and Once In A While show off the strength and warmth of his voice in gorgeous contrast to Chambers’ icier high lonesome influences. The only track on the album where his vocals really don’t work is Jackson Hole where an odd production choice finds him completely vocodered. Elsewhere he proves himself a worthy equal to Chambers, with their voices weaving in an around each other with a perfection that harkens back to Ryan Adams and Caitlin Cary in a partnership far more equal.
When Kasey Chambers broke onto the scene she was viewed as a breath of twangy fresh air in an overly popped up country world. By the time that 2006 brought Carnival, Kasey seemed to be ready to leave her more country leanings behind and join the wider spectrum of pop music. A variety of factors, including a pregnancy, conspired to take Kasey back to her roots, back to a small stage with just her family and her guitar. This album marks a return of the Kasey Chambers who bragged of locking herself into a room and listening to nothing but Hank Williams to shake the blues. In its own way, Rattlin Bones marks both a maturity and a return to childhood for Kasey Chambers. She is back in a studio with her family band, but this time it’s her grown up family. It’s a journey all of her fans have been lucky to join her on.