by Cindy Howes, (@CindyCast) for FolkAlley.com
Country singer Kasey Chambers, who has been a prime representative for Southern Australia’s rural music tradition, strikes a balance of exploration and maintaining her core sound on her latest release ‘Bittersweet,’ due out via Sugar Hill Records on July 24th. It is notable that Chambers’ tenth studio album, which sees her writing about freedom, sweet releases and the bittersweet, is her first release since the separation from her husband, singer/songwriter, Shane Nicholson. Her last solo album of originals was 2010’s ‘Little Bird’ followed by the 2012 ‘Wreck and Ruin’ collaboration with Nicholson. On listening to this new record, it is clear that she has had some life altering experiences, which have left her with a lot to say. It is not an outright breakup album, but there are certainly songs that hint strongly towards starting anew and surviving. Take, for example, the closer “I’m Alive,” where she boldly professes: “And through all the blood and the sweat and the tears/Things ain’t always what they appear/I made it through the hardest f****** year.” On the other side of that is the title track – a duet with fellow Australian, Bernard Fanning. “Bittersweet,” the slow burning ballad about the pain of needing to end a relationship, but not knowing how, is poignant and heartbreaking. Chambers’ songwriting impressively displays the many complicated dynamics that ending a relationship brings out, and she sounds so free while doing so.
‘Bittersweet’ also marks a change sonically for Chambers, who has exclusively worked with her brother/manager Nash Chambers. This album sees her looking to broaden her range and sound with the production skills of Nick DiDia. DiDia’s credits include huge sounds like Rage Against The Machine, Pearl Jam and Train. His past work’s influence is not very noticeable on many tracks that have that classic Chambers’ folk/country tinged sound like “Oh Grace,” “I Would Do” or “Heaven or Hell.” Chambers also nails that familiar sound she’s known for on “House On a Hill,” which marks the first duet with her father and mentor, the musician Bill Chambers. It seems like DiDia’s ability to bring out this intensity and drama from Chambers’ songs is unprecedented. Chambers’ shows massive growth in that department in the song “Wheelbarrow,” which sounds like it could be on an Alan Lomax prisoner chain-gang field recording (aside from the super dirty electric guitar). A highlight on the record is the barnburner, “Too Late To Save Me.” It is hard to understand why this stirring performance is all the way on track ten on the record.
While there are elements that will be familiar from the Kasey Chambers’ albums of the past: sweet alt-country sounds and that beautiful clear voice of hers, this album truly marks a turning point for her. After 15 years recording, Chambers has won multiple ARIA and CMAA awards in Australian music, including the ARIA for Country Music Album of the year for ‘Bittersweet’ in 2014 (The record was released last year in her native country). It’s inspiring to hear a musician and songwriter who is so celebrated, broaden her range so successfully in what has been a challenging time of change in her life.