No Surf Music


The No Surf Review


The Lowdown:

Kasey Chambers

Based In:
Copacobana, New South Wales, Australia



Little Bird

Release Date:
July 12, 2011

Sugar Hill

Previous Releases:
The Captain (1999), Barricades & Brickwalls (2001), Wayward Angel (2004), Carnival (2006), Rattlin' Bones (2008, w/ Shane Nicholson)

Australian-Americana (?), country,, bluegrass


Related Articles:

Kasey Chambers, Little Bird album art

Rating: 8 out of 10



July 12, 2011


August 2011 Featured Review!

Kasey Chambers: Little Bird

by Jason D. 'Diesel' Hamad


Editor’s note:

We’re always hardest on the ones we love. When this website first launched, I wrote a review of Kasey Chambers’ Little Bird based on the Australian release that came out last year. The fact that I managed to get a hold of the album long before it was available in the States should tell you how much I love Kasey. But frankly I was disappointed. I think my expectations for Kasey were so high (and so specific), that I failed to appreciate many aspects of the new release that are well worth appreciating, even if some of the qualities I’ve always loved in her music are less present than in the past.

Now that Little Bird is coming out in America, I reread that old review with the intent of reposting it as-is. After half a paragraph I knew I had to throw it out and start again. No Surf is committed to writing objective critiques whether the work is good or bad, and we don’t shy away from writing less-than-glowing reviews. That first review of Little Bird was unfair, however.

While I still don’t think that Little Bird is Chambers’ best work, it’s grown on me in the months since I first listened to it and I now realize that I judged it based on my own expectations of what Kasey’s music should sound like, and not on the quality of what it actually is. For that I apologize to Ms. Chambers and my readers, because you both deserve better than that. I must have been in a bad mood at the time, or more likely sleep-deprived.

If you read the old review, please disregard it and consider this to be a much fairer reflection on the album. Criticism of any art is subjective by definition and nobody is perfect. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to be.

Kasey Chambers, the most obscure Australian artistic genius since... well, ok, I can't think of any but that doesn't make her any less awesome.

Kasey Chambers, the queen of Australian, combines rock, country and bluegrass influences—and no shortage of sass—into music that is sometimes rip-roaring, sometimes poignant, sometimes spritely, sometimes meaningful, and often just a lot of fun. Occasionally she’s all those things at once. Her new album Little Bird—finally dropping in the United States a full ten months after its release down under—is not as hard-hitting as many of her past works but contains a number of very good songs that break new ground for the singer.

It absolutely baffles me that Kasey Chambers has never really broken out in the U.S. She’s long been hugely popular in her native Australia, and among many in the small class of aficionados in this country she’s held in virtually the same regard as Americana legends like Lucinda Williams and Steve Earle. Yet outside the circle of such obsessive niche fans she’s virtually unknown in this hemisphere. Even bringing her up in a conversation with members of bands has gained me nothing but blank stares. I gained an immense amount of respect for songwriter Kelley McRae when I mentioned Kasey in conversation and she replied, “I love Kasey Chambers” and told me she’d covered one of her songs. “Kasey Chambers” has almost become an shibboleth… If you know her I instantly recognize that you know good music. If, on the other hand, you don’t know Kasey Chambers, you have no idea what you’ve been missing. Almost all of her albums, especially Barricades and Brickwalls, Carnival and Rattlin’ Bones are absolute classics that no music collection should be without.

Chambers is at her best when she just lets go, whether it’s the blisteringly honest self-examination of “The Captain” or “Not Pretty Enough,” the frantic rocking of “Crossfire” or “I Got You Now,” or the lay-it-all-out carpe diem ethos of “We’re All Gonna Die Someday.” This album has many of the same elements that I love about her music—witty lyrics, bluegrass infusion, and a bit of girl power seasoning—but it does lack some of the oomph of previous releases. I think that’s why I had a fairly negative reaction to the album when I first heard it. I was expecting the fiery, young girl that I’d fallen in love with, and suddenly woke up with the more experienced, wise woman I’d married. Now that I’ve had a little time to get used to the change, it’s easy to see that this Kasey is just as (musically) sexy as she ever was. Who knows, maybe I’ve matured a little in the last few months, too. Ok, fat chance.

Chambers undergoes changes of scenery in the "Little Bird" video.

The title track is a perfect illustration. “Little Bird” is an answer to Chambers’ biggest-charting single, 2002’s “Not Pretty Enough.” It focuses on the same feelings of inadequacy and longing, but with different reactions. Described by Kasey as the “strong, secure version” of the song, it came about when she started thinking over how she would write the tune at this later stage of her life:

And the little bird said with the wink of an eye,
If I beg real hard and I do not cry,
You might come back.

If I keep my opinion under my breath
And I only bring it out when the master says,
You might come back.

But I don’t want you that bad.
No I don’t want you that bad.

Heartening words, since every time I’ve ever heard the original incarnation it’s made me want to scream at the weepy little girl in the song and tell her to stand up for herself. Finally she is.

“Little Bird” is extremely well written and features some very cool multi-layered vocals and mellow instrumentation. In fact, it was this mellow feel that I took issue with initially. At the risk of exposing my own narcissism by quoting myself, one of the opinions expressed in my first review of this album was that the song “shows hints of greatness, but while the lyrics are off the hook, it’s the delivery that doesn’t do it for me. Chambers’ talent in the past has been in styling these neo-feminist rants in a decidedly anti-feminine form, which is much of what makes them so great. While the low-key delivery of this song might make sense as a parallel to ‘Not Pretty Enough’ on some level, I’d rather just hear her musically kick its self-pitying ass.”

I still wouldn’t mind this, but I realize this was an unfair criticism. I may want Kasey to spend every minute of every day kicking ass, but she’s a real person with a multifaceted personality, and this song fits into a different part of her psyche. One could not expect the pitiful girl who wrote “Not Pretty Enough” to sing a ball-blasting, rip-roaring rock song (although she did in other moods), and one cannot expect the more mellow, wisdom-imparting incarnation of her that is speaking in this piece to do so either. In the final analysis, “Little Bird” is an exceptionally well-written song in and of itself, and when tied into Kasey’s personal story reveals an exceptionally deep view of the human condition and our capacity for growth. Oh, and the tune ain’t bad, either. It’s a nice kind of mellow.

One of the only real rockers on this album is “Train Wreck.” It amply demonstrates that when she wants to Kasey can still kick it with the best of ‘em. The song features high-energy guitar parts, reminiscent of surf licks done in high distortion. Kasey says she instructed the musicians to just be loud and not to give anyone any space. Combined with her screaming vocals, the result is a balls-out basher. She shouts the lyrics like they can't wait to get out of her mouth:

You’re like a train wreck baby.
You’re making me crazy.
Nobody can save you now.

It’s like a bottleneck pileup.
You jump from high up
And you landed on your feet somehow.

Odelayee I’m on a one way route.
Odelayee I got no way out.

In an interesting piece of juxtaposition, the song fades at the end and then suddenly transitions into a hidden track banjo-pickin’ hoedown with Kasey giggling and interjecting the random thoughts that often give her albums a sense of free-form spontaneity. It’s an undeniable standout track.

Chambers plays Dr. Frankenstein to a scarecrow in the video for "Beautiful Mess."

“Beautiful Mess” is one of the most interesting songs on the album from several perspectives. It’s a song both for and about her children, Talon and Arlo, and in many ways demonstrates the personal and emotional growth that Ms. Chambers has undergone over the years. It’s hard to picture the Kasey from the early years writing a song about the joys of motherhood, but then again, she couldn’t, could she? At the same time, if the listener doesn’t know the context, it could just as easily be mistaken for a love song, something the video plays up:

So send me to the grave with the age-old question
How’d I get into the beautiful mess?
And it was never my intention and never my style.
Everything about you was worth my while.

If I had a soul I might be genuinely touched. It’s obvious that other people were, as the song won the Grand Prize in the 2010 International Songwriters’ Competition, beating out over 15,000 other entries. Not a bad endorsement, considering the judges included preeminent songwriters such as Tom Waits. And also Kelly Clarkson, for some indescribable reason. Still, awards aside it’s a fun frolic of a tune.

Another much along the same lines is “Nullarbor (The Biggest Back Yard),” a cute little tribute to her childhood on the vast Nullarbor Plain where her father was a foxhunter and the family lived in their car, camping in a different place every day (damn hippies!). It amply describes the wonder of growing up in such isolation with lyrics like:

When I was a little girl
I had the biggest back yard in the world,
Covered up with red dirt as far as I could see.
Shared it with a railway and the aborigines,
Southwest of Aldea all the way down to the sea and back.

Featuring a simple banjo-picked background, it would be perfectly at home on the children’s album Kasey recently recorded with her father, former Dead Ringer Band cohort Bill Chambers. It’s not an Earth-shattering masterpiece, but it’s truly enjoyable.

“Devil on Your Back” is a half-rock, half-country piece that moves at a blistering pace and features picked banjo, fiddle, harmonic vocals, and a definite bluegrass influence. It manages to create a sense of paranoia both through the lyrics and the music, which seems like it might literally run the listener right over. It contains some great verses like:

Well I don’t know if it’s in the Bible
But you got a holy heart.
And there’s a devil in the valley down below
And you keep falling back to the start.

The chorus continues the paranoia streak but also tries to alleviate it when Kasey sings:

Hold your breath.
Somebody’s comin’.
Hold your breath.
Somebody’s here.
Hold your breath.
Somebody’s comin’.

There’s a devil on your back,
Worry on your mind,
Weight of the world on your shoulders.

Don’t look back.
Don’t waste time.
Everything’s going to be just fine.

This, says Kasey, is just the Australian way: don't worry about it. Coming right on the heels of  “Beautiful Mess,” it makes one wonder what kind of bedtime stories she tells her kids.

Clocking in at just one minute and forty-five seconds, “Georgia Brown,” is a high roots, banjo dominated bluegrass burner that would fit right in on Rattlin’ Bones, the masterful album Chambers recorded with husband Shane Nicholson. It tells the story of a coquettish girl who knows just how to keep her men wrapped up where she wants them.

“Down Here on Earth” is a neo-cowgirl rock ballad featuring great guitar riffs—both highly distorted rhythm chords and a blistering lead—as well as chanting vocal harmonies on the refrain and a great metallic chain gang clank that highlights the hard feel of the song:

Come down from your high horse.
Aren’t you tired and lonely?
Come down from your high horse
If you want to get to know me.

Hey ho round we go.
Only makes it worse.
Hey ho round we go.
It’s better down here on Earth.

This is yet another one that proves that Kasey still has the power both in her voice and her attitude to rip out a sonically shredding ass-kicker whenever she wants.

Now that is a fair amount of praise. Most of the rest of the album cuts are perfectly acceptable, if not particularly noteworthy. Still, there are a couple of tracks that I just as fairly have to take issue with.

Kasey obviously has an affinity for colorful jewelry as well as colorful music. Photo by Pierre Baroni.

The first of these is “Somewhere,” an attempt at the poignancy Chambers sometimes masters (usually when she's not trying) but which often just turns out sappy and limp without any real insight. The latter was the result here and even guest vocals by Patty Griffin couldn't save the day. Another is “Invisible Girl,” a pretty invisible song about a young lady who can’t get the boy she likes to notice her. If recorded for a previous album, such as Barricades & Brickwalls, it might have been done in a pumped up style, but here it’s just sing-songy. The tune could have been awesome with a rock flair and a bit of ironic sass, and I feel that’s how it should have been recorded, even if the poppy treatment may be more in line with the teenage girl vibe. Finally, there’s the hidden track, “The Stupid Things I Do,” a song about a girl who becomes completely useless in presence of her lover. Written as a “shit, I forgot!” Valentine’s Day gift for her husband, it is supposed to be cute, but turns out self-deprecating in a way that is at odds both with Chambers’ much more interesting girl power rants and the maturity displayed in “Little Bird.” The takeaway seems to be, “I’m dumb, but I’ve got a vagina so what do you expect?” It's just possible this one should have stayed hidden.

Still, seven very good tracks and a number of good ones is a pretty fine record, and a few misses can always be expected. Is this the Kasey Chambers of the past? No. But that incarnation is gone, and while it’s obvious that the Kasey Chambers who wrote Little Bird still posses some of her fire, she’s got a much more positive attitude that has caused a shift not just in lyrical content, but in musical tone, as well. Chambers has always balanced barnburners with more introspective pieces; it’s just that for now the pendulum has swung towards the latter. Artists are humans, and humans must evolve or die. Kasey chose to evolve. I’m sure she’ll continue to do so.

If you don’t know Kasey Chambers you should. You have no idea what you’re missing. She is one of the best songwriters on the planet and the fact that she is little known in the U.S. is a sad testament to our collective musical I.Q. My suggestion? Buy this album while it’s hot, but at the same time pick up one of her older masterpieces, like Carnival or Barricades & Brickwalls. Believe me, you won’t be sorry for a second that you did.


Buy Little Bird on Amazon!
mp3 cd


No Pop. No Crap. No Surf.