June 2008

Essays

The banjo Is the new stratocaster

By Robert Forster
Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson & The Darling Downs

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

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.

From the front page

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison during a visit to Penshurst Girls School in Sydney today. Image © Mick Tsikas / AAP Images

Quiet please

The PM would like both Christensen and the media to zip it

Image of sculpture by Jane Bamford

The artist making sculpture for penguins

How creating sculpture for animals is transforming wildlife conservation and the art world

Image of Abdul Karim Hekmat. Photograph © Sam Biddle

Australia needs to hear asylum seekers’ stories, in our own words

Our presence has preoccupied the nation, but our stories have been excluded from the national narrative

Image of Australian Bicentenary protest, Sydney, NSW, 1988

The stunted country

There can be no republic without constitutional recognition of Indigenous Australians

In This Issue

Keith Windschuttle and Robert Edgerton: a comparison of texts

And you can too

Recent book subtitles
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Divertimento

The bigger devil

Patrick Cockburn’s ‘Muqtada al-Sadr and the Fall of Iraq’

More in Music

Bing Crosby and David Bowie on Bing Crosby’s Merrie Olde Christmas, circa 1977.

Oh, carols!

The music of Christmas, from the manger to the chimney

Image of The Kid Laroi

New kid on the block: The Kid Laroi

How Australia has overlooked its biggest global music star, an Indigenous hip-hop prodigy

Image of Dry Cleaning

More than a feeling: ‘New Long Leg’

The deadpan spoken-word vocals of British post-punk band Dry Cleaning are the mesmeric expression of online consciousness

Image of Pharaoh Sanders and Sam Shepherd

Always tomorrow: ‘Promises’

Legendary saxophonist Pharoah Sanders joins electronic musician Floating Points and the London Symphony Orchestra for a compositionally minimalist album


Online exclusives

Image of Abdul Karim Hekmat. Photograph © Sam Biddle

Australia needs to hear asylum seekers’ stories, in our own words

Our presence has preoccupied the nation, but our stories have been excluded from the national narrative

Image of Oscar Isaac as William Tell in The Card Counter. Photograph © Focus Features

Debt burden: Paul Schrader’s ‘The Card Counter’

The acclaimed writer-director indulges his experimental streak in a thriller that inverts the popular conception of the gambling man

Image of The Beatles and Yoko Ono during the ‘Let It Be’ sessions. Image © Apple Records / Disney+

‘Get Back’ is ‘slow TV’ for Beatles nuts

Despite plenty of magical moments, Peter Jackson’s eight-hour epic is the work of a fanatic, and will likely only be watched in full by other fanatics

Image of John Wilson in How To with John Wilson. Image courtesy of HBO / Binge

Candid camera: ‘How To with John Wilson’

Both delightfully droll and genuinely moving, John Wilson’s idiosyncratic documentary series is this month’s streaming standout