“Wreck & Ruin” is the second collection of songs from the Australian husband and wife team of Shane Nicholson and Kasey Chambers.
Chambers needs little introduction to Americana listeners. Over the past dozen years, the youthful sounding songstress, still only in her mid-thirties, has released a series of albums ranging in quality from exceptional (the debut The Captain and last year’s Little Bird) to middlin’ (Wayard Angel). Her voice is unmistakable, a vulnerable twang somewhere between Rachel Sweet and Elizabeth Cook. Like Cook, she isn’t in a hurry to get through any song- each note, each inflection purposefully placed to positive effect.
Nicholson is less known to North American types although he has had a long career in his home country. His “Bad Machines” was named the Austalasian Performing Rights Association Song of the Year in 2011, and he has been repeatedly nominated for various awards in his homeland.
The duo swap leads and harmony throughout this interest-maintaining set of thirteen tracks. While the production values are high- there are no refrigerators heard humming in the background, nor dog barks punctuating a ballad- the album feels relaxed, as if it were recorded in a cozy front room, by friends sharing a bottle of wine.
Some songs contain lyrics that just have to be stolen from lost mountain songbooks, or at least from Gillian Welch`s satchel. “Have Mercy on Me,” which appears late in the set, opens with the evocative phrase, “When the angels come from the heavens above, pick me up on a white-winged dove; I could trade it all if you asked me to, take the green, take the red, the white and the blue.” I’m not necessarily aware of what it all means, but it sure sounds pretty.
“Flat Nail Joe” reminds this listener both of an old Roger Miller song and Steve Earle`s “Telephone Road” a tri-sided compliment if there ever was one. There are a couple spots that feel like filler- the still-enjoyable studio frivolity of “Sick as a Dog,” for one, on which Chambers does her best June Carter- but these are certainly balanced by moments of brilliant clarity, such as “Troubled Mind,” the album`s closing track. The title track is another highlight.
One of the elements that strengthens the album is its brevity; the album cuts through at 34 minutes and most songs clock-in at under three, giving things a mid-sixties, Harlan Howard approach that is much appreciated. Another is the generous amount of banjo and fiddle throughout.
The album isn’t all that different from Rattlin’ Bones, the 2008 album that marked the first extended collaboration by Chambers and Nicholson. That album’s songs may have been a touch stronger, if one can be so bold to assess such things. I’m not confident that there is a song within Wreck & Ruin as powerful as either “Once in A While” or “Sweetest Waste of Time” although “The Quiet Life” comes close. However, Wreck & Ruin is a warmer album, something you may find yourself coming back to re-explore throughout the depths of this winter.
Finally, don’t mistake this album for a Kasey Chambers project simply featuring her husband. As on Rattlin’ Bones, Nicholson is as important to this album as his more familiar spouse. His voice isn’t as distinctive as Chambers’, but few are and it doesn’t need to be; in fact, to use the most over-utilized comparison in roots music, if Nicholson is to Chambers what Parsons was to Harris- vocally that is- well, that isn’t such a bad thing.
As always, thanks to the labels that continue to service me, and thanks to you for visiting Fervor Coulee. Donald