Having earned widespread critical acclaim for her first two albums, Kasey Chambers began to move in a more polished, adult-pop direction on 2004’s Wayward Angel and refined that style into something more in line with her natural gifts on 2006’s under-appreciated Carnival. For her latest effort, however, Chambers makes a sudden about-face: Writing and recording Rattlin’ Bones with her husband, Shane Nicholson, Chambers has unexpectedly returned to a gritty Americana sound. That maneuver might seem like a regression from an artist who is still coming into her own but for the fact that Bones happens to be one of Chambers’s strongest records.
Because of her economic use of language and her ability to mine real emotional depth from her observations of even the most mundane events, Chambers is a natural as a country songwriter, and it turns out that Nicholson, a fellow Aussie and former frontman for the rock band Pretty Violet Stain, shares a similar knack for that kind of material. The album’s stripped down, mostly acoustic arrangements are ideally suited for songs like “The Devil’s Inside My Head,” which sounds like a long-lost traditional mountain gospel rave-up, and the bluesy title track, which recalls the thematically similar cuts from Fred Eaglesmith’s exceptional Tinderbox. The standout “Sweetest Waste of Time,” with its vintage country hook (“If all this waiting still leaves me wanting/You still would be the sweetest waste of time”) is perfectly cast as a George Jones and Tammy Wynette-style duet. Bones is certainly the most traditional album of either Chambers or Nicholson’s careers, but the arrangements of these songs speak to a genuine understanding of genre conventions.
Both performers are in fine voice throughout the record as well. Chambers is a powerhouse—the devastating “One More Year” and “No One Hurts Up Here” are among her most vulnerable performances, while “Sleeping Cold” finds her at her most aggressive—but Nicholson holds his own, with his plaintive tenor blending seamlessly with Chambers’s deceptively girlish, distinctive warble. Both as songwriters and vocalists, Chambers and Nicholson’s gifts complement each other, making Bones a fine example of how working with an inspired collaborator can push artists to challenge themselves and produce another essential record in what has turned into a strong year for the alt-country sound that most people considered dead and buried.