Because her own songwriting is so idiosyncratic and distinctive, Kasey Chambers has rarely looked to outside writers for material, so it’s something of a surprise that she’s recorded a covers album. While Chambers insists that the artists whose work she’s selected for Storybook were integral to her own development as a singer-songwriter, it’s not like she’s ever hidden the influences of Gram Parsons, Lucinda Williams, and Gillian Welch on her work. To that end, Storybook too often feels obvious and hastily cobbled together, a stop-gap album before Chambers gets back to something more substantial.
Chambers fares best when she delves into the catalogues of slightly lesser-known artists. Not enough singers tackle Fred Eaglesmith’s tremendous songbook, and Chambers’s soulful reading of his “Water in the Fuel,” a mournful ballad of life-on-the-road regrets, is far and away the highlight of the collection. She’s joined by fellow Australian “Americana” artist Paul Kelly on a fairly rote rendition of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” but her version of Kelly’s “Everything’s Turning to White” is another of the set’s strongest cuts.
Unfortunately, too much of Storybook skews toward the familiar. It’s not just that Lucinda Williams’s “Happy Woman Blues” and Welch’s “Orphan Girl” have been covered plenty of times already, but that Chambers’s doesn’t offer any new interpretations that would make the songs definitively her own. Both Parsons’s “Return of the Grievous Angel” and Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You” are given faithful, reverent covers that never rise above competent. Of the songs in Chambers’s country and folk niche, only a ribald, rollicking take on John Prine’s “Leave the Lights On” has any kind of fire in it.
The album’s only truly grave errors come from two covers of ‘80s pop songs. The timbre of Chambers’s voice takes on an unusually pungent quality as she bleats out an earnest but unlistenable take on Cyndi Lauper’s “True Colors,” and she plays up the girlish, almost childlike tones of her voice on Suzanne Vega’s “Luka,” making her version of the song come across as particularly maudlin. She’s a terrific singer, but playing it safe on shopworn Americana tracks and getting run over by poorly chosen pop hits aren’t the best showcase for Chambers’s talents.