Australian country singer-songwriter Kasey Chambers returns to her roots on this, her 12th studio outing. In the press release announcing it, she explained that “I grew up in the remote outback of Australia living a unique lifestyle isolated from civilization. The campfire was the heart of our existence: for survival, creativity, inspiration. We hunted all our own food and then cooked it on the campfire. My brother and I did all our schooling via correspondence around the campfire. We used the campfire for warmth and light. We gathered around the campfire at night to play songs together as a family. Our connection to music and the land has developed through and around the campfire since I was born, so it has always stayed with me as a special part of my life.”
Accompanying her: Brandon Dodd of Grizzlee Train, who’s been part of Kasey’s touring ensemble for a few years now; Alan Pigram of the Pigram Brothers, a longtime family friend and Aussie indigenous elder; and the man who led her family into the outback all those years ago, her dad, Bill Chambers. Guitars often chug along, a harmonica wails, and voices come together as one or, as often, with a call-and-response that’s as joyous to hear as it must have been to sing. About the only thing missing: a campfire crackling in the background.
But make no mistake: This isn’t a collection of stereotypical campfire songs, many of which are kid-friendly sing-alongs that date to the 18th and 19th centuries. (Think “Home on the Range,” “Bingo Was His Name-O” and “The Hokey Pokey,” which I recall singing on a fifth-grade camp weekend.) No, by and large, these songs address such topics as life, love, longing, death, and (as evidenced by the above clip) David vs. Goliath. One speaks directly to Abraham, the patriarch of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. (“Oh we failed you Abraham, we’ve come unstuck/so many times you’ve bailed me out/oh we failed to understand and fucked it up/we laughed out loud/nobody’s laughing now…”)
Another highlight: “The Harvest & the Seed,” which features a guest appearance by Emmylou Harris.
Yet another spellbinding song is “Now That You’ve Gone.” Last year, after seeing Kasey in concert, I wrote that her vocals bypass the ears for the heart and soul – this is a good example of what I meant then. Built from the same cloth as “Ain’t No Little Girl,” it’s a vocal tour de force (and a guaranteed showstopper in concert, I think).
By album’s end, the darkness recedes with a few songs one can actually imagine singing with kids around a campfire – “This Little Chicken,” the metaphoric “Fox & the Bird,” and “Happy.” They’re sly and fun, and further burnish what is a stellar set of songs.