CD review: Storybook by Kasey Chambers

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It look me quite a while to love this album – about ten listens, I reckon. That was probably because it’s not an album of Kasey’s original songs, but it’s still her, and now I love it all the same.
Storybook is a collection of new and old recordings of other people’s songs – if you’re a die-hard fan who’s bought all of Kasey’s singles and EPs, you’re going to have her versions of Cyndi Lauper’s ‘True Colours’, Paul Kelly’s ‘Everything’s Turning to White’, James McMurtry’s ‘Too Long in the Wasteland’, Patty Griffin’s ‘Top of the World’ and and Fred Eaglesmith’s ‘Water in the Fuel’. But you won’t have the newer recordings, which are actually more impressive than the earlier efforts because this album clearly shows us how Kasey has matured and improved as a singer. She is a strong singer who can also reveal vulnerability in the turn of a note – as she does in her version of Suzanne Vega’s ‘Luka’, ‘Everything’s Turning to White’ and Matthew Ryan’s ‘Guilty’. Interestingly, while the lyrics of ‘Orphan Girl’, a Gillian Welch tune, suggest vulnerability, there isn’t much to be heard in Kasey’s voice – perhaps because she’s singing it with her husband, Shane Nicholson – or, maybe, to him.
Shane is one of several musical guests on the album. Jimmy Barnes is almost unrecognisable in his lower register on the Townes van Zandt song ‘If I Needed You’. Paul Kelly, a previous collaborator, does not sing on the song he penned but on the Hank Williams number ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry’.
The only song I regularly skip over is the cover of John Prine’s ‘Leave the Lights On’, but no doubt other people love it, musical taste being a subjective thing. The standout tracks for me are Gram Parsons’s ‘Return of the Grievous Angel’, ‘Luka’, ‘Guilty’ and the Nanci Griffith track ‘I Wish it Would Rain’, which Kasey sings with Ashleigh Dallas. The other tracks are perfectly great, though – for the curious, there are also covers of Lucinda Williams (‘Happy Woman Blues’) and Steve Earle (‘Nothing but a Child’, sung with the Lost Dogs).
For Kasey fans, this is obviously a must. For other punters, it’s a great collection of country or country-esque (or pop, in Lauper’s case) songs that acts somewhat as an introduction to the genre and its range of songwriters and subjects. Kasey has always been an excellent interpreter of other people’s songs, and those skills are evident here. She is one of those singers who becomes the song – she inhabits the story in the song and conveys it to her listeners. This is her job, of course, as a performer but I often reflect on the fact that very few performers understand the unspoken contract as well as she does. She understands what her audience needs, and she delivers it, without ever compromising what she loves and what she wants to do. With Storybook, that is as true as it is of everything else Kasey Chambers does.
Storybook is out now through Essence/Liberation.

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