When Kasey Chambers released her first American album in 2000, stateside listeners were intoxicated by the rootsiness of her songwriting and the translucency of her singing. When they discovered that Chambers, then 24, already had a thriving career in her native Australia, those listeners started wondering if she was an anomaly or just the iceberg tip of a vital scene they’d never heard about.
She’s just the tip. The evidence can be found on The Women at the Well: The Songs of Paul Kelly (Mushroom), a tribute to Australia’s equivalent of Richard Thompson or Steve Earle. Unlike most tribute projects, this one is unified by a common missionto examine how songs change with gender. Kelly wrote some of these in the voice of a female character; some were written for male characters, but every song gains a new perspective, a new life, when it’s sung by a woman.
Chambers sings “Everything’s Turning to White,” Kelly’s adaptation of the Raymond Carver story about the fishermen who find a woman’s corpse in a remote stream and spend two days fishing before reporting the body. (The tale was also adapted for the Robert Altman film Short Cuts.) Kelly wrote the song from the point of view of one fisherman’s wife; to hear her monologue delivered in Chambers’ keening soprano is to hear the song finally click into focus.
Besides Chambers, the best known names on the album are New Zealand’s Bic Runga, who does a pretty version of “The Gift That Keeps on Giving,” and The Divinyls’ Chrissy Amphlett, who turns “Before Too Long” into a riveting techno number. The album’s standouts, however, are by Renee Geyer and the duo Vika & Linda, each of whom contributes two tracks co-produced by Kelly himself. Geyer, who had a brief fling at an American career in the late ’70s, is a big star in Australia, a powerful but sultry rock ’n’ soul singer in the vein of Dusty Springfield. She makes Kelly’s “You Broke a Beautiful Thing” and “Killer Lover” sound like those versions of Curtis Mayfield songs recorded by Gladys Knight and Mavis Staples in the early ’70s.
The real revelation, though, is the duo of Vika and Linda Bull, two sisters from Melbourne whose mother comes from the Pacific island nation of Tonga. Virtually unknown in North America, these former singers for The Black Sorrows combine the sibling harmonies and folkie storytelling of the McGarrigle sisters or The Roches with the bluesy nerve of a Bonnie Raitt or Maria Muldaur, buoyed by a Polynesian lilt. Like Emmylou Harris, Vika & Linda use their lovely, guileless voices and their excellent taste in material to draw attention to some of the best roots songwriters around.
On their new album, Love Is Mighty Close (VAL), the duo tackle two more Kelly compositions, “You Touch Me Down to My Soul” and “To Be Good Takes a Long Time (To Be Bad No Time at All),” and the performances are as swooning and comic as those titles promise. The sisters also sing two songs by Dan Brodie (Australia’s John Mellencamp) and two by Stephen Cummings (Australia’s Bryan Ferry) as well as chilling breakup songs by Ron Snarski (“It starts with snow but it ends with rain”) and Chris Wilson (“Each time you wish upon a star it could mean an angel dies”).
One of the album’s highlights is “Holy Waters,” a song that seeks spiritual answers even as it’s skeptical of most of the options. Written by Cyndi Boste, it’s the lead-off track on the composer’s own new album, Push Comes to Shove (Black Market). Boste (whose surname rhymes with “post”) is a late bloomer; after 15 years as a covers act, she made her singer-songwriter debut at age 38 and this follow-up at 41. It was worth the wait, for her twangy alto is now as toughened as it is big, and her writing benefits from a maturity that refuses to expect too much or to settle for too little. She’s one of those rare singers who can communicate mixed feelings, such as patience combined with anger, or kindness in the middle of goodbye.
Boste’s lyrics aren’t dazzling, but they amply undergird the embattled determination that makes her vocals so impressive. Whether she’s addressing political leaders who ignore the realities of a working woman or a lover who blames her for everything, Boste conveys a combativeness that sounds more like a promise than an idle threat. When she compares a crumbling relationship to “wading through honey,” her lingering affection is obvious, but it’s clear she’s leaving nonetheless.
When Kasey Chambers’ parents split up, her father formed the duo Bill & Audrey with Tasmanian singer Audrey Auld. Though he’s no longer involved with Auld romantically, Bill Chambers contributes as an engineer, guitarist and arranger to her new solo album, Losing Faith (Reckless), which also features vocals from Kasey, Mary Gauthier, Fred Eaglesmith and Kieran Kane. Auld has a smaller, thinner voice than Kasey, but she writes from a more experienced, more skeptical perspective, using wiry country-blues arrangements to support her minimalist stories.
On the title track, Auld describes the dangers of turning a lover into a messiah, only to discover that he would “feed me drops of water and tell me it was wine.” On “Our Lady of Sorrows,” she doesn’t protest her innocence but begs forgiveness while a fiddle and organ drone in the background. On “Heartache,” she admits that ending a relationship won’t solve her problems but concludes, “The hell ahead looks better than the hell I’ve known.”
The Australian roots act most likely to break through in America next is The Waifs. This trio have toured North America relentlessly, have a distribution deal with BMG here and opened for Bob Dylan this spring. All three membersVikki Simpson, her boyfriend Josh Cunningham and Vikki’s older sister Donnasing lead and play acoustic guitar. They don’t write together, yet they share a remarkably unified sensibility. Over pretty picking, bluesy harmonica and a restrained rhythm section, they sing of their hopes and disappointments as if talking offhandedly over a cup of coffee. Somehow, they connect these conversational verses to sing-along choruses that evoke those moments when best friends are thinking the same way.
The most irresistible track on The Waifs’ new album, Up All Night (released on Compass Records in the U.S.), is Donna’s recounting of an expatriate’s phone call home to Western Australia. She jabbers away in the syncopated style of Suzanne Vega on the verses, but the chorus slows her to a crawl. Her dreams of reunion are checked by the sobering realization that she’s in “London Still,” even if the blow is softened by her sister’s sighing vocals.
Cunningham achieves a similar effect as he describes a return to his hometown in New South Wales; the verses are full of warm memories, but the chorus turns cold as he realizes how much has moved on without him. Vikki offers a more upbeat view of the road life on “Three Down,” an infectious country dance number about the joys of hitting the streets of a new city. Whether writing about the road, tangled romance, hidden secrets or childhood as a “West Australian fisherman’s daughter,” The Waifs wear their hearts on their sleeves, and those feelings are even more obvious in their seductive melodies than in their confessional lyrics.
All of these albums could be described as Americana, for they share a familiar blend of literate folk lyrics and twangy arrangements, but they are most interesting when they’re most Australian. When Kelly references cricket or Australian rules football, when Vika & Linda add Pacific accents to their harmonies, when Boste describes her Melbourne neighborhood, when these singers rely on homegrown songwriters and musicians rather than the usual American suspects, it gives roots music a new viewpoint and vitality that the genre needs.
Thus it’s reassuring to hear Auld reject a move to the U.S. on “Doin’ Well.” She cracks jokes about Nashville (“Where everyone’s a star even if you drive a cab”) and New York (“High-cotton country and bagels in the streets”) before declaring defiantly, “I’m staying right here.”
Australian recordings can be hard to find in North America; for more information, check these Web sites:
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