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Kasey Chambers: Barricades and Brickwalls

Warner Brothers, 2002

Rating: 3.8

 

 

Posted: April 1, 2002

By Kevin Forest Moreau

Kasey Chambers' not-so-secret weapon is a distinctive, twangy warble capable of investing the most mundane subjects with a plaintive, high-lonesome pathos. Unfortunately, that's pretty much exactly what she uses it for. On Barricades and Brickwalls, her sophomore release, Chambers consistently wraps her quavering pipes around threadbare material, singing of breaking hearts and rivers of tears in a victim-of-love stance that sharply contrasts the unimpressed, tough-as-nails posture she affects on the album's packaging.

To be fair, there are a few glimpses of the flint and steel those images project, as on the opening title track, in which she confidently informs the object of her affections "I'll be damned if you're not my man before the sun goes down." It's a picture of total control, even as Chambers lets go of any pretense of control over her gossamer-and-barbed-wire voice, often careening with knuckle-whitening abandon toward absolute vocal mayhem. Her reed-thin grasp of her instrument will cause some to dismiss Chambers the same way they dismiss Bob Dylan's shambling, craggy delivery, but in tandem with an assured bar-band groove, it works arrogant wonders.

But that proves the exception rather than the rule, as Chambers reins in her expressive voice in the service of a runaway trainload of clichés -- her broken heart leaves her free as a bird flying out over the sea, her eyes have cried a million tears, and did we mention a runaway train? The junior-high poetry quotient runs highest in "On a Bad Day," in which she solemnly intones: "Every time my tears have ever fallen / I keep 'em in my pocket for a rainy day." Likewise, on "If I Were You," she indulges in the kind of wordplay all too common to mainstream country radio, informing the object of her affections that were she him, she'd "wait for me" and "hold me and say/ it's all gonna be okay."

To her credit, Chambers delivers these tropes with a sense of genuine longing, and they're often swaddled in gorgeous, sprightly melodies. The wispy sentiments of "Not Pretty Enough" sound breezy enough for Top 40 radio, while Chambers' delicate, mostly understated delivery effectively drives home the emotional impact of "A Million Tears." Elsewhere, she channels Hank Williams on "A Little Bit Lonesome," in which she invites a lost lover to "kiss my ass," and serviceable covers revered alt-rock grandfather Gram Parsons' "Still Feeling Blue" with full attention to the Hippocratic Oath, doing no harm while doing nothing particularly fresh with the material.

Musically, Barricades is utilitarian in approach, sporting the right amount of electric guitar jangle here, just enough acoustic intimacy there. And Chambers loads up the disc with some heavy guest-artist firepower, which she mostly squanders: Her stylistic godmother Lucinda Williams barely registers on "On a Bad Day," while Matthew Ryan's pained harmonizing on "A Million Tears" is a misuse of his talents. Even Australian lyrical laureate Paul Kelly, who shows up on "I Still Pray," hardly leaves an impression. Only the superlative Buddy Miller really registers; his raspy support work earns him Barricades' MVP award.

Throughout Barricades, one can almost hear Kasey Chambers stalking the circumference of her stylistic cage, her voice wanting to break free but held back by her still-developing songwriting skills. She closes the album with another hint of the grit that might someday deliver on those "next Lucinda" predictions: The hidden track "Ignorance" addresses a vague panoply of social ills, with Chambers almost snarling "If you're not pissed off at the world/ then you're just not paying attention." But as she does throughout Barricades, she hobbles herself, prefacing that couplet with this bit of timidity: "I've got something to say/ and I thought it might be worth a mention." When she becomes confident enough to ram some substantial, defiant songs down our collective throats, she'll be free of the self-imposed barricades that hold her back here.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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