The banjo Is the new stratocaster
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson & The Darling Downs
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Less-is-more is an edict that has never gained much leverage in rock 'n' roll. More-is-more is the preferred option, with record companies (the majors, traditionally) willing to bankroll artists' excess in the studio and on the road. The change usually comes with the downturn of an artist's career, or when a successful band sees the benefit of starkness and simplicity after a few albums with orchestras and choirs. Older artists come to it through experience, realising that a song can breathe and a lyric can be heard with less background chatter. The explosion in computer-based home recording has also fed into this cycle. There are only so many musicians you can fit into your bedroom or shed, and - coupled with the limited recording skills of most home engineers - this has led to a proliferation of smaller, more intimate albums being released on indie labels over the past ten years or so.
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson's Rattlin' Bones was not recorded in a home studio, but from the proud proclamation about its creation on Nicholson's website ("recorded ‘live' in only eight days") to the obvious shift both artists have made from their recent major-label pop-crossover work, it represents a very concentrated stripping back and refocusing. Old and new strengths are being played to. For Chambers, with four successful solo albums behind her, it's a letting-go of smoother, bigger music in favour of the much-touted ‘roots' of her family and its love for authentic American singing and songwriting. For Nicholson, it's a break from a pop career and the opportunity to apply his knack for melody and prodigious instrumental skill to country music. For both, it's a chance to take the intimacy of their marriage into their music, to write songs and form a new entity groomed on their time together.
There are 14 songs on the album and the first ten are great. They skid from clear country pop (‘Once in a While') to Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris-style heartbreak (‘Sweetest Waste of Time') to minor-chord melody (‘Monkey On a Wire' and ‘One More Year'). The instrumentation is never less than beautiful, with a tight house band of acoustic and electric guitar, bass, banjo, mandolin, lap steel, percussion and a touch of fiddle. No one does anything exceptional, other than to play exactly what is required in the service of the songs. It's a formula that sounds easy to replicate but can only be done with musicians who are completely down with the riffs and runs of roots music. On top and nicely clear in the mix are the singers: Chambers, known and revered, with a strong American-country twang to her voice that splits opinion, and Nicholson, the surprise here, easily matching the prowess and power of his famous wife.
Lyrically, the album presents a tableau which is part mythical nineteenth century and part rural America of the '20s and '30s. It's trouble and sorrow, pots of gold and painful loss, the Devil and Jesus, and love that's gone wrong or can just be damn hard to find. It's a world far from our own, and far from the cosy pictures of mum and dad and baby Arlo that Chambers and Nicholson give to the press. And it's a smart move: do we need an album of them cooing about their love? The sepia-toned Depression-era scenes of these songs allow the couple to jump beyond their marriage and take what they love from traditional music and its most recent permutation, alt-country. The only hitch is that at times, the American accents and the lyrics give a sense of mimicry instead of real pain. What saves it from hokeyness is Nicholson's singing, his melodic-pop sense and its translation into country songwriting, and the vocal arranging Chambers and he have done that breaks through most of the clichés associated with a duet record.
Finally, the album sounds good. There is a third star of Rattlin' Bones and it's Nash Chambers - brother of Kasey, son of the album's guitar and mandolin player Bill - who is the producer. He gives a lesson in how to make an authentic roots-country record. The instruments are all audible, without being squeaky and bright. The arrangements are clever: not everyone starts at the same time; bass and second guitar enter and lift songs. The vocals are creamy and the whole sound, though live, doesn't have a ringing we-are-all-in-this-together vibe. It is a neat record and a pleasure on the ear, and it is all his work.
The Darling Downs' From One to Another is the shadowy cousin of Rattlin' Bones. It's the lonesome drifter. The former Died Pretty lead vocalist Ron Peno has corralled the former Scientist and Beast of Bourbon Kim Salmon, a guitarist and singer-songwriter, into making a country record. They are the only two performers, with Peno singing and whooping and Salmon playing guitar and banjo. This is a stark album. Where Rattlin' Bones is a cut-down affair recorded quickly in a studio with players, From One to Another aims for that other side of Southern folk, country and blues culture: the field recording. Much of what remains of pre-'50s rural-American music was recorded using primitive portable equipment on location - or, if the budget allowed, artist and equipment were moved into a hotel room. The sound echoes, feet are stomped, stories are told in voices shot through with experience, and the result is true tales told with great immediacy. This is what The Darling Downs are aiming for.
Given the spareness of the elements, everything has to work. Of the 11 songs Peno and Salmon have written, two, ‘Lately' and ‘Redeemed' - which are slower, less obviously melodic and perhaps in need of a band - do drag. But the rest are strong and a couple, ‘Something Special' and ‘A Moment of Despair', are classic enough to be picked up and covered by famous names or simply to enter the canon the way songs did in the time that the album wishes to evoke, through word of mouth, and from singer to singer.
The album was recorded and mixed by Dave Graney at the Ponderosa, Graney's home studio outside Melbourne. It shows some of the benefits and deficiencies of recording at home and on computer gear. Both voice and instrumentation are very present and the album has been mastered loudly, so it can be difficult to get any distance from the music. The mix is a little uneven, with the voice struggling against the lone instrument. This is a shame, as Peno is a good lyricist. Only one lyric (‘Something Special') is printed in the packaging and it's impressive, so it is unfortunate that a lot of what he sings here is not easily discerned. The album has intimacy, though, and with Peno's pining vocals and Salmon's impressive guitar and banjo playing it has its own particular aura and power. But ears have to be adjusted, and a return to Rattlin' Bones steadies the nerves, before casting back to the howls and foot stomps of Mr Peno and Mr Salmon in that weird house down on the corner.
Robert Forster is a singer-songwriter and co-founder of The Go-Betweens. His collection of music criticism, The 10 Rules of Rock and Roll, was published in 2009.