Kasey Chambers – Barricades & Brickwalls (2001)

Barricades & BrickwallsBeen a busy week or so, hence the lack of bloggage, but here we are. Went out last night to a “town hall” meeting with Conservative Party leader Colin Craig, for a bit of, um, robust debate. But this is a blog about beer and music, not politics, so I’ll say no more about that. But it does provide a useful intro to how I first heard about Australian country singer Kasey Chambers, and how I came to buy Barricades & Brickwalls, her second album.

The first time I’d read Chamber’s name was in the acknowledgements of one of Michael Moore’s books, which I read like most everyone else did in that brief window where he seemed to be relevant (but, really, not so much). He thanked Chambers, listing her amongst the likes of Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen as music he’d listened to while writing, and the name stuck in my mind enough that when I was next down at the music store I saw this album on the country shelves and immediately bought it.

On the original Australian cover-art, Chambers is certainly an intriguing figure, for what is sold as a “country album”. In sepia-toned photos, she’s wearing a striking op-shop coat, with jagged cropped black hair, a lip piercing and smudged mascara around pale blue eyes. So to hear her singing voice for the first time is somewhat incongruous. With a high-pitched, nasally country twang she sings with a voice full of country music, including the heart-breaking slight-miss of the note that slips the song into a minor key.

On Barricades & Brickwalls, Chambers’ sounding at her best. The production is relaxed, and a bit raucous at times. The rockier songs have a bit of grit to them while, when she lets her voice soar in one of her aching ballads, the band sensitively pull back. On later albums Chambers has slipped more and more into a commercial Nashville sound, but on here she’s fully within the “alternative country” feel; stripping songs back to the rock and country roots of the sound.

She’s also paired with some great other voices on this album, either as duets or backing vocals. These voices provide a different tone and an excellent support for moments where Chamber’s voice needs grounding while she soars above. Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller, and the iconic Paul Kelly all make appearances, while The Living End turn up on ‘Crossfire’ to help Chambers kick out the jams.

But while the rockier songs are great, Chambers’ milieu is more the country ballad, where her achingly keening voice can break even the hardest heart. In particular on two tracks that form the centrepiece of the album. ‘Nullabor Song’ is achingly lonely and vast, like the plains she is singing about, but my favourite moment of all is in ‘Million Tears’.   On this, Chambers sings with a heart-breaking clarity about the fear and hopes and desperation of falling in love with someone. Her voice is entwined with the husky twang of alt-country stalwart Matthew Ryan’s, and as Ryan layers swirls of guitar noise and feedback their two voices meld in a longing musical embrace. Beautiful.

Beer match: Chambers hails from South Australia, which means it wouldn’t be right to not suggest something from Coopers Brewery. There’s a lot to like in the beers made by what is now Australia’s largest locally-owned brewer, but while many will swear by their ‘Sparkling Ale’, personally I like the ‘Extra Stout’ even more. Dark, silky and with a nice little hop-edge around the edges, I think this’d be perfect to sup with the lights down low while Chambers’ superb voice breaks your just that little bit more.

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