Already certified platinum in her native Australia, Kasey Chambers’s sixth album, Little Bird, has finally made its belated debut in the U.S. nearly a year after its initial release. Despite favorable comparisons to Lucinda Williams, Patty Griffin, and even Taylor Swift, Kasey Chambers simply hasn’t connected with American audiences the way she has with listeners in her home country, where she’s been a major star for well over a decade. Given that her critically hailed output has yet to boost Chambers’s relatively low profile, Little Bird isn’t likely to rectify that, but it’s far and away the singer-songwriter’s most accessible album.
While Rattlin’ Bones—the extraordinary album she recorded with her husband, Shane Nicholson—was an austere, spare bit of Americana, Little Bird is more in line with the sound of her earlier records, Carnival and Wayward Angel. This one is a polished, studio-slick record of pop-country whose songs are catchy as all hell. Had Chambers not been banished to the Americana ghetto that country radio programmers won’t go near, songs like “Someone Like Me” and “This Story” would fit perfectly into playlists alongside singles from Miranda Lambert, Keith Urban, and Zac Brown Band.
Chambers knows her way around a strong, simple hook. A line like “But I don’t want you that bad” doesn’t say much in isolation, but in the context of the record’s title track, that single repeated line stands as an unexpected reversal from the self-denial and heady psychological terrain of the song’s verses. Chambers plays up the most girlish qualities of her voice as she sings, “If I keep my opinion under my breath/And I only bring it out when the master says/You might come back,” before she belts out the refrain. It’s the economy of Chambers’s songwriting that has been the source of the comparisons between her work and that of Williams, and Chambers’s deep understanding of song structure allows her to create real emotional complexity from just a few turns of phrase.
The excellent B section on “Someone Like Me” makes use of enjambment as Chambers launches into the song’s chorus. Again, the lines themselves (“You’ve got it all/But the only thing you/Need is me/Someone like me”) couldn’t be more straightforward, but the way Chambers uses them in the course of the song is smart, sophisticated writing, and the melodic line over which she stretches the word “need” only enhances the impact of the song. That nearly every song on Little Boat boasts a similar poetic maneuver or a spot-on production trick (the a cappella pick-up that leads into the chorus on “Beautiful Mess” is the kind of thing that Taylor Swift’s singles do so well) makes the record a compelling defense of pop-country.
The album also affords Chambers opportunities for more adventurous stylistic diversions. The rollicking “Georgia Brown” is a banjo-driven romp that proves how capably Chambers can sell a rootsier brand of country, while “Down Here on Earth” is the hardest straight-up rock song Chambers has yet recorded. Even on the tracks that take greater risks, Chambers, as co-producer of the record along with Nicholson and his band, the Millionaires, doesn’t push beyond the overall tone of the album. Chambers just gets structure, and it’s that know-how that makes Little Bird one of her finest albums.