Bittersweet by Kasey Chambers: Beer, Music, and Place
The stereotypes swirling around Australia often have the effect of mythologizing the country while also tempting the mind to view it in offensively cartoonish terms. Negative stereotypes of Australians are unabashedly floated, and unfortunate images of overly laid-back, borderline alcoholics pervert the perspectives of those who have never been there. Kangaroos, koala bears, and knife-wielding crocodile hunters hold hostage the imagination when the words “Down Under” are heard. This phenomenon isn’t necessarily unique to Australia, of course; my Canadian wife will often field questions about sled dogs and the politeness level of her fellow Canucks. But for me, at least, thoughts of Australia leave me with a sense of familiarity alongside the recognition that the country is alien to me. I have a hard time firmly grasping what Australia is, while haunted by those thoughts of familiarity. This tension is unfortunate, because the concept of place has become increasingly important to me.
My family lineage traces through southern Alabama sharecroppers; the Deep South is embedded profoundly within me. For the longest time, I resisted it. While living in San Francisco, it would irritate me to hear the comments about my Southern accent, an accent that I thought I had left behind in my college theatre program’s voice and diction classes. Entering my 40s, however, I have rediscovered a love for my place, for my roots. The food, the cadence of the Southern Alabama and Florida Panhandle accent, the sound of the wind flowing through loblolly pines, all have grooved deeply into my personality. And while almost a thousand miles from my place, that is exactly the place my mind wistfully drifts to during moments of solitude.
Kasey Chambers, although from a different place than I, cuts through the unfair images of a country that I’ve never visited and suggests solidarity. At the least, her music demonstrates an understanding of where she comes from and how that place has helped shape her. And, her place sounds awfully familiar.
Many of the Australian stereotypes travel in the same dirt-road ruts as the stereotypes that characterize the Deep South. In fact, I’ve heard it joked, in the pejorative sense, that Australia is the Deep South of the world. I resent that, both for what it implies about the Deep South and for what it implies about Australia, a country that, in the little interaction that I’ve had with its culture, I respect. Kasey Chambers is all Australian, but her musical voice is just at home on a sweltering Mississippi Delta front porch.
Music is the language of culture, and the roots music of America often runs parallel with the roots music found in the Old World. With that in mind, it’s no wonder that Australian roots music more than echoes the roots music of the Deep South, or vice versa. Without rehashing the history of Australia’s settlement, the similarities between Australia and parts of this country are striking – both good and bad.
Bittersweet, the latest album from Chambers, takes dusty banjos, gospel influence, and Chamber’s sweetly story-cragged voice and knits the music tightly into wide-open spaces, well-earned sweat stains, and cool evening breezes.
Bittersweet was first released in Chamber’s homeland on August 29, 2014, with the United States’ release coming almost a year later. It has been in my personal rotation for two months, and as I considered albums to pair beers with, this one never really entered my mind. In fact, I had originally written another article for this week’s column, but, late last week, while leaning back and enjoying the autumn evening with beer and the music of Kasey Chambers, I realized that I had made a mistake. Bittersweet is, and always has been, meant to be paired with beer; I had written the wrong article.
Thankfully, I caught my mistake in time. Please enjoy the music and beers listed below; and, remember, both beer and music is best enjoyed in the company of friends and loved ones.
This song has a freshness that astounds me. And that freshness is not found in crisp originality, because “Oh Grace” is not original. And that’s so very perfect. The sharp simplicity, Chamber’s sweetly knowing voice, and the subtle banjo and violin distill the song into the snap of a field pea – the sound, the earthy smell, and the crisp dust cloud that signals the clean snap. I can’t say with 100% assurance that Australia has field peas, but I would bet piles of money that Kasey Chambers has spent time in a rocking chair shelling peas. And, if you find yourself in a rocking chair, shelling peas, and listening to “Oh Grace,” pour yourself a simple yet bracingly fresh Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA.
I don’t know what you think when you hear the descriptor “fresh,” but, for me, words like citrus, pine, and green grass jockey for position at the front. Well, there is no jockeying for positioning in the Fresh Squeezed IPA from Oregon’s Deschutes Brewery because the flavor profile is as smooth and balanced as can be found. If beer could be hand-squeezed from fruit, Deschutes’ Fresh Squeezed IPA is what would lusciously pour out.
Roots music isn’t known for grungy electric guitar, but maybe it should be. On “Wheelbarrow,” Chambers unleashes an alt-country version of ’90s grunge that shares similarities with some of my favorite songs from Shovels & Rope. “Wheelbarrow” fits nicely into Bittersweet, but definitely reveals the influence of producer Nick DiDia, who has worked with Pearl Jam, Stone Temple Pilots, and closely with Australian alt-rockers Powderfinger (Bernard Fanning of Powderfinger makes an appearance on Bittersweet – more on that song later). Considering that my first music loves include Hüsker Dü, Dinosaur Jr., and Nirvana, it should come as no surprise that “Wheelbarrow” is my favorite track on Bittersweet.
Layered and spicy, “Wheelbarrow” deserves to be paired with a beer that holds up its end. Belgian beers are known for complexity, and one of my favorite tripels, Westmalle Trapist Tripel, is renowned for its blending of malt sweetness, Belgian yeast spiciness, and warm alcohol phenol. A beer and a song that you’ll be compelled to enjoy again and again make for a perfect pairing.
“House on a Hill”
Years ago, while living in the Blue Ridge region of South Carolina, I would frequently drive by an abandoned house that cried out in ways that separated it from other abandoned houses. The house, wrinkled, slumping, and fading, occupied my imagination every time I passed it. Who had lived there? Were their stories comedies or tragedies? Many times, I contemplated going inside in the hunt for more concrete images that could help shape my imaginings. I never did. I still think of that house, and the way the setting sun wept on its broken windows. Kasey Chambers has apparently seen that house, too, except in Australia. “House on a Hill” elegantly and respectfully distills the end of a house and the stories splintered into its walls.
Nostalgia can be misleading. Memories, when physically re-confronted, often prove disappointing. The stories embodied in houses may very well be ugly and troubling. The same can be true of beer. Most people are introduced to beer through lagers. Going back, it’s often discovered that the lagers of our youth fall woefully short of what we taste in our memories. Thankfully, craft breweries are beginning to develop clean, crisp, and tasty lagers. One such lager is the My Antonia, an imperial pilsner from Dogfish Head Brewery that will go perfectly with the memory-haunted “House on a Hill.”
A dueling love song, “Bittersweet” highlights the vocal prowess of Bernard Fanning and Kasey Chambers. As the title suggests, the song’s two protagonists have layers of love rolled up into resentment and lost hope. In fact, the love runs so strongly throughout “Bittersweet” that the listener is left with the glimmer of belief that this couple, who were obviously made for each other, will ultimately find a way forward together.
Kölsch is a beer style developed in Köln, Germany, that marries ales and lagers. Using ale yeast that is cold-conditioned (lagered), Kölsch offers the drinkability of lagers but with the bolder flavor profile of an English pale ale. For many, ales and lagers are at odds, but the 32°/50° from Coast Brewing Company will dispel any concerns. With its Kölsch style beer, Coast Brewing Company will justify whatever optimism you feel while listening to Kasey Chambers’ beautiful yet seemingly broken love song.
I’ve been pairing beer with music for almost two years now, and I can’t think of a song that’s been harder to pair a beer with than “Christmas Day.” There are several very good Christmas-themed beers, like Sierra Nevada’s Celebration Ale, but Chambers’ retelling of the First Advent transcends the pigeonholing that generally accompanies holiday themed merchandise. “Christmas Day” is, on one level, a traditional Christmas carol, but without the feel-good, peppermint-coated saccharine coming out of big, box store speakers, driving retail workers crazy. The sweetness is there, but it’s well earned and placed by Chambers’ excellent retelling of one of our society’s most cherished stories. The Nativity’s gravitas is also present, but without dragging “Christmas Day” into the untouchable sacrosanct. It’s a song for those who want to be able to love Christmas year round.
I don’t remember if I’ve paired Bell’s Two Hearted Ale with a song recently, and I don’t really want to know; because I can think of very few beers that are as delicious, drinkable, and appropriate year round as Two Hearted, one of craft beer’s standard IPAs. No reason to make this complicated. Pour a pint of Two Hearted Ale, turn on “Christmas Day,” and celebrate the First Advent whenever you desire, no matter the time of year.
Unlike punk music, roots music has the ability to flip the middle finger with nuance. Bittersweet, deftly raising a middle finger, ends with a resounding jangle and affirmation in the face of bad choices and staggering blows as Kasey Chambers’ belts out “I’m Alive.” Her personality filled voice is accompanied by a harmonica that hearkens back to the great pseudo-hobo musicians of the late ’50s and ’60s. Promising us that she has “more stories to tell,” Chambers ends her latest album with a declaration of hope, regardless of whether circumstances align themselves against her.
As I hear her place in her music, I am moved by the resilience that seeps from Kasey Chambers’ roots that are driven deep into Australian soil. In keeping with the courage, openness, and artistry of Chambers and her native land, the final song on Bittersweet isn’t a song to sip beer to; it’s a song that deserves giant gulps of malts and hops. And if chugging is called for, it needs to be a beer that’s not going to knock you on your ass. Upland Brewing Company’s Campside Session IPA has a highly drinkable (translation – chuggable) abv of 4.5%, but without sacrificing any flavor.
My biggest regret with this article is that I am not familiar with Australian craft beer. I do know that Australia has a healthy craft beer scene that could very well provide excellent beers to pair with Bittersweet. I would love to hear from Kasey Chambers’ Australian fans about which Australian beers they have found that pair well with the music from one of their own.