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Wednesday, March 20, 2002

HIGH NOTES

Kasey Chambers: 'Barricades & Brickwalls'


Home may be where the heart is, but sometimes the voice comes from somewhere else. Whether it's Mick Jagger's Mississippi drawl or Billy Joe Armstrong's cockney pretensions, pop singers adopt accents because that's the way they imagine one sings a particular style of music. It doesn't matter that Jagger still sounds like an English fop or that only a nerdy Californian would sing about the things Green Day's Armstrong sings about.

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But Kasey Chambers is different. The American Southern accent that comes out of her mouth when she sings her country songs belies her Australian upbringing, but it's not the same as assuming a style. Chambers is as country as they come. It's just that the country isn't the U.S. She lived in the outback for the first 10 years of her life, singing Hank Williams songs with her family around the campfire. As a teenager, she was the lead vocalist in Dad's country and western band.

Reportedly devastated when her parents divorced, Chambers channeled her disappointments into her first solo album, "The Captain," which was a hit Down Under in 1999 and one of the most talked about records on the Nashville fringe when it was released in the States the following year. Steve Earle raved about her voice and Lucinda Williams, who said she couldn't stop crying the first time she heard the album, invited Chambers to open her last American tour.

If the accent seems less apparent on her new album, "Barricades & Brickwalls," it's not that it's any less pronounced, but rather that Chambers no longer sounds like anybody but herself. On "The Captain," her raw, girlish vocals barely pushed the sentiments beyond the reach of sentimentality. She still seems too heartfelt for her own good, but she has learned, as she explains in two separate songs, "to take it like a man."

So while Chambers is never more affecting than when she sings about her idealized childhood, as in "Nullarbor Song," an ode to star-filled nights on the outback, orchestrated to plaintive fiddle and lap steel, she's never more awesome than when she delivers country barn-burners like the Hank-perfect original "A Little Bit Lonesome" and the Gram Parsons cover "Still Feeling Blue."

In between, she drifts dangerously close to Michelle Branch territory, but despite the body piercings and Spice Girl couture, Chambers is too respectful of her roots and too honest about her messy feelings to play to the lowest common commercial denominator. Heart-tuggers like "A Million Tears" and the sinfully beautiful "If I Were You" sound naive but nevertheless turn into repeaters; and rockers like the obsessive title cut ("I'll be damned if you're not my man before the sun goes down") and the perverse, self-mutilating "Crossfire" ("If you don't hate me you'll learn to") grab you by the short hairs. Wherever Kasey Chambers is coming from -- be it Nullarbor or Nashville -- she definitely brings it all home.



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