Kasey Chambers

Barricades & Brickwalls (Warner Bros.)

Becoming a critics' fave can be like moving into a posh but virtually inescapable prison cell, and Chambers is apt to wind up with such a sentence. After all, her music is often described as "alternative country," which has proven to be as big a turn-on for mainstream record buyers as a centerfold spread of Madeleine Albright. (Too many alternative fans think country is for morons, and a like number of country boosters don't like alternatives of any kind -- except, in rare cases, margarine.) To make matters worse, Barricades & Brickwalls includes guest appearances by Lucinda Williams, Buddy Miller and Paul Kelly, who are so highly regarded that they make the average person nervous, and it features a Gram Parsons composition (the jaunty "Still Feeling Blue"), which has been the kiss of death from a commercial standpoint since before death kissed Gram Parsons. Plus, Chambers is Australian, which may have worked for Paul Hogan, but not for long. Or am I not giving Crocodile Dundee in Los Angeles a fair shake?

Viewed from this perspective, the only folks liable to get excited over this CD are music journalists like yours truly, who get their copies for free -- and no, I'm not willing to give mine away. But miracles do occasionally happen in the music industry, as the success of the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack demonstrates, and listeners who enjoyed the taste of that disc will find plenty to sink their teeth into here.

Not that Barricades is some sort of retro-bluegrass throwdown: The scorching title cut, which suggests a Steve Earle original as wailed by Patsy Cline at her most indefatigable, is driven by guitars that actually operate on electrical current, and only one ditty sports a dobro. But the disc as a whole is shot through with an understanding that roots music can't be planted in shallow soil. "I'm a Little Bit Lonesome," for instance, is pure Hank Williams, with a classic chord structure, time-tested arrangement and a half-yodel that Chambers inserts into the very first line. But there's a contemporary vitality to her delivery that reaches its apex with the final verse's concluding couplet: "I grabbed a glass, I said, 'Kiss my ass'/I'm gonna drink you out of my head."

Granted, Chambers is sometimes too beholden to traditional country imagery: Her clever reference to tears in "On a Bad Day" ("I keep 'em in my pocket/For a rainy day") loses some of its juice when she revisits the same territory a few cuts later on "A Million Tears." But she's clearly capable of doing more than paying homage to the masters. A case in point is the album-closing "Ignorance," a lament about the sins of the world that contains vivid truth-telling such as "If you're not pissed off at the world/Then you're just not paying attention" that wouldn't sound out of place in a punk-rock song.

It's doubtful, of course, that Faith Hill aficionados will be eager to gulp down such naked earnestness -- and given that The Captain, Chambers's excellent debut (it reached these shores in 2000), made nary a ripple on U.S. charts, plenty of others may steer clear as well. In the lovely "I Still Pray," Chambers doesn't directly address such fears, but she should. Becoming a touchstone for reviewers, record collectors and assorted societal misfits is a fate no one deserves.

 
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