Because the country and Americana scenes have recently been inundated with male-female duos, the second album from Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson loses some of its predecessor’s relative novelty. But Wreck & Ruin otherwise picks up right where 2008’s Rattlin’ Bones left off, with the married couple layering intricate vocal harmonies over some casual, mostly acoustic country-rock. The gorgeous, nearly a cappella “‘Til Death Do Us Part” immediately lays bare the album’s central theme of looking at love as a source of shelter from hard times. But instead of looking at that theme as an excuse to wallow in misery, the duo infuses their songs with a wiseass sense of humor, making Wreck & Ruin a far more complex album than its simple song structures and stripped-down aesthetic initially let on.
Understated ballads like “The Quiet Life” and “Your Sweet Love” capture an authentic sense of romance that focus on the intimate details of a relationship, while Chambers and Nicholson look outward to survey their bleak surroundings on raucous uptempo cuts like “Dustbowl,” “Flat Nail Joe,” and “Rusted Shoes.” That deliberate, ironic disconnect between the grim worldview of their lyrics and often spirited and freewheeling music puts Wreck & Ruin in fine company alongside albums like Pistol Annies’ Hell on Heels and Old Crow Medicine Show’s Tennessee Pusher. And the self-referential title cut, on which Chambers sings, “Gotta get down with the rattlin’ bones,” in the middle of a song about making peace with forces of evil, proves the duo are fully aware of the album’s wry point of view.
Though Wreck & Ruin impresses for its thematic focus and gallows humor, the economy of language in the songwriting occasionally scans as a bit pedestrian. While “Adam and Eve” is a subversive spin on the Garden of Eden story, lines like, “I was misguided, I was misled/I asked for good, but got evil instead,” are almost too plainspoken to have much of an impact, and the language on the hymn “Up or Down” is simplistic to the point of being childlike. “Sick As a Dog,” which opens with the couplet, “I got the fever, I got the cough/My head is pounding like the wheel’s come off,” and then gets even more literal in its images as the song continues, is just flat-out indefensible and out of place. That said, one outright dud of a song and a handful of lazily written lines don’t outweigh all that Chambers and Nicholson get right on Wreck & Ruin, an album that tempers its genuine, heartfelt romance with the darkest comedy.