Kasey Chambers & Shane Nicholson: “Rattlin’ Bones”

Broken hearts, rattlin’ bones, the Devil on the prowl and demons dragging you down into Hell… listening to the songs on their first album together, one might be tempted to conclude that Kasey Chambers and husband Shane Nicholson have a pretty lousy home life. Then again, as sweetly as their voices compliment each other, it’s hard to think of their partnership—creative and otherwise—as anything but harmonious, so perhaps these songs aren’t meant to be taken as purely autobiographical. Indeed, though Rattlin’ Bones bears the kind of live-in grit and authenticity that can only come from real wounds and true pain, it’s also steeped in history—specifically, the history of country music, which provides this husband-wife duo fertile ground in which to plant their own seeds of song and story, creating a fantastic record that recreates history in its own image and sets the standard for traditional country in 2008.

Funnily enough, the album actually marks a step forward for Chambers as an artist, even if it’s also a step back into very ancient musical expressions. Her last couple of albums as a solo performer found her kicking against the borders of roots music, and the results were sometimes quite good, but nothing compared to the raw beauty and ease of these fourteen songs. Naturally, one is inclined to give much of the credit to husband Nicholson, who not only co-writes all of these songs with his wife and co-produces with Nash Chambers, but also plays many of the instruments and sings in a high and lonesome country tenor that makes for a natural foil to Chambers’ high, Julie Miller-style cooing. But this isn’t just a case of two talented musicians teaming up; it’s a case of them finding the same, common muse, chasing it down and tackling it to the ground. It’s a case of traditional American music being tamed and turned into something that’s deeply reverent of the past, but vitally of the here and now.

The slightly-creepy cover art, with its slightly washed-out coloring, provides a good indication of where these artists are coming from; seemingly untouched by digital production, this is a country album made by folks who know their roots music well, but also owe a debt to the country-rock of Gram Parsons as well as the country-folk of Bob Dylan and the rootsier moments of the Stones. There’s nothing even close to honky-tonk here, but there’s plenty of Appalachian folk and bluegrass, as well as some deep touches of the blues and country-rock. Chambers and Nicholson are equally comfortable with sentimental country weepers—like the appropriately steel-drenched “Sweetest Waste of Time”—and howling blues-rockers, like the floor tom stomp of “Jackson Hole.” But crucially, these songs all sound like they’re mined from the very same creative place, as different parts of a seamless fabric.

Indeed, there’s an out-of-time, rustic quality to these songs that makes them feel like simply the next chapter in part of an unfolding story; though all fourteen songs are originals, they all sound like they could be ancient folk tunes, or country standards. They’re written in the primal, emotive language that has always marked country and blues songs—they’re songs about heartache, love gone wrong, and trouble around every corner. None of these songs mention cheatin’ spouses or late nights of drinkin’—no, they’re more intimate than that, and they studiously avoid giving way to country clichés. These are comforting songs of trials and trouble, songs marked by a sort of warm, inviting sadness, songs that ask you to lay down your burdens for a while to just sit and listen. Thus, songs like the remarkably simple and heartfelt “Once in a While” are endearing in their melancholy, story-songs like the woebegone “Adeline” and “Jackson Hole” feel like spooky old numbers that used to be sung around a campfire, and the album’s brighter, sprightlier moments—like the good-natured, backporch banjo-pickin’ “The House That Never Was” and the gospel lullaby “No One Hurts Up Here”—are all the more sublime.

That Chambers and Nicholson are in fine voice throughout probably goes without saying, but it just makes this recording all the more special. These kinds of low-key, heartfelt country duets albums are troublesomely rare in 2008—indeed, the last time it was done so well was in 2005, when Caitlyn Cary and Thad Cockrell cut their delightful album Begonias. And the scarcity of music like this is just another reason why Rattlin’ Bones isn’t just the best country album of 2008—it’s a real gem, an album that’s pleasing to the ears but also good for the soul.

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