Hailed as the heiress apparent to Lucinda Williams in 2000, Australia’s Kasey Chambers has faced some impossibly lofty expectations in her short career, and Williams herself even cited Chambers as her favorite new songwriter. While her debut The Captain and its follow-up, 2002’s exceptional Barricades & Brickwalls, proved that Chambers is capable of producing a respectable approximation of the deceptively simple kind of wisdom that is Williams’ stock and trade, those albums (and, somewhat less successfully, 2003’s Wayward Angel) also showcased Chambers’s willingness to explore sonic territory that a homebody like Williams, sticking to her blues-inflected country, tends to leave alone.
Chambers’s latest album, Carnival, makes an even more decisive break from her earlier (alt-)country recordings. Though she’ll likely never outgrow the “girlish” tone that makes her voice instantly recognizable, Chambers, now 30, moves even further into the grown-up AAA direction of Wayward Angel on Carnival. What makes the album something of a rebound for Chambers, then, is that much of it shines with the spitfire personality of her first two records—the spark that was missing on Wayward Angel, making that album a bore.
Though she does vulnerability as well as any of her contemporaries (“The Rain” opens with, “I will try to break/Every habit that holds me,” and then descends into failure and futility), Chambers is at her best when she takes a straightforward line like, “I got you holdin’ on with both hands to the chain” (from standout “I Got You Now”) and uses that inimitable warble of hers to twist it into something capable of carrying considerable weight. “I Got You Now,” which is the hardest-rocking cut she’s ever recorded, never commits to one side of the line that separates menacing from kinky, and Chambers pulls it off like it’s just no big thing at all. And the jazzy “Light Up A Candle” (which, it’s worth noting, has a nearly identical melody to Wayward Angel‘s “Pony”), the seductive “You Make Me Sing,” and the raucous “Living On the Railroad” are all just as spirited and inspired.
Carnival lags, unfortunately, when the production (by Chambers’s brother, Nash) opts for lackluster roots-rock arrangements that fail to match the vitality of Chambers’s vocals or her lyrics. “Nothing At All,” a poor choice for the album’s lead single, recalls the post-Lilith Fair sameness of Lisa Loeb and Natalie Merchant; but for Chambers’s voice, the song could pass for latter-day Sheryl Crow. The album’s only truly bad track, “Surrender,” is produced like those damn near unlistenable Sarah McLachlan remixes. Needless to say, it’s a terrible fit with Chambers’s voice and with the remainder of the album.
While her overall sound may have changed since her debut, Kasey Chambers’ strengths both as a singer and a songwriter, more so than the production, are the focus of Carnival. Some of her fans might miss the obvious vintage-country influences from her earlier work, but Carnival is nonetheless a fine showcase for one of the most distinctive talents to emerge in any genre in recent memory.