Five years in the making, Kasey Chambers' Bittersweet marks a change of direction for the Aussie native (who's already won considerable accolades for this record from scribes back in her homeland). It starts at the crossroads where Bruce Springsteen's Nebraska meets Emmylou Harris's '70s sweetness then picks its own path, barrelling down the road with the sincerity of Southern roots music, the veracity of '70s punk, and the shiny-object swankiness of American pop radio.
The opening cut, "Oh Grace," is a perfect archetype of the Harris-in-Nebraska observation, a sparsely populated song of bittersweet love set against a simple guitar strum, brushy drums, and a beautiful fiddle solo by Ashleigh Dallas. But then Chambers unveils "Is God Real" and adds a contemporary chime to the whole affair. It's an urgent appeal of uncomfortable agnosticism over a pulsing electric guitar, delivered in the voice of a lost little girl, with unbounded urban energy. "Wheelbarrow" turns in three directions in a New York minute, evolving from a gospel a cappella tune to a banjo-balanced back porch sing-along to a thrashing rock tune in a matter of about eight bars. Later, Chambers sticks close to the folkie format on "I Would Do," channels her inner Alphabet City punk on "Hell of a Way to Go," plays things a little on the bluesy side on "House on a Hill," then closes the record with the full-on Springsteen harp and hustle of "I'm Alive."
Though the influences here are broad-ranging , all the tunes work together — a testament to Chambers' compositional fortitude and producer Nick DiDia's steady hand. Like some other solid records we've heard this year from Hannah Miller, Laura Marling, and Jessie Baylin, this is what roots music sounds like at the most inventive edges of the genre.
Listen to the record here.