Finding Their Way in a Man’s World
This article is from the archive of The New York Sun before the launch of its new website in 2022. The Sun has neither altered nor updated such articles but will seek to correct any errors, mis-categorizations or other problems introduced during transfer.
The Dixie Chicks don’t bother fixing what ain’t broke with their new album, “Taking the Long Way” (Open Wide/Columbia). The Chicks have always thrived on sassy verve, injecting mainstream flourishes into their traditional roots, and they have padded this latest with the same soft-country rock that sold 18 million of their albums to date.
The brightest moments on “Taking the Long Way” happen when the Chicks play to their own songwriting’s strengths – and those songs practically soar, buttressed by songwriting collaborations with such adult-contemporary figures as Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, the Jayhawks’ Gary Louris, Crowded House’s Neil Finn, Sheryl Crow, and Linda Perry. Producer guru Rick Rubin takes credit for holding together this group of songwriters, as well as for recording the Chicks in Los Angeles with such hired guns as Red Hot Chili Peppers drummer Chad Smith, guitar whizzes Smokey Hormel and Matt Sweeney, and adult alternative heartthrob John Mayer.
The Dixie Chicks have never wanted for personality. The ability of Martie Maguire (violinist-vocalist), Emily Robison (multi-instrumentalist-vocalist), and Natalie Maines (vocalist) to switch from barroom anthems to gentle ballads without missing a single three-part vocal harmony is the sort of professionalism heralded by Grand Ole Opry Nashville. These young women merely recast that musical versatility to fit themselves – they are musicians who know 1950s and 1960s country classics but also the rock and pop of their own generation.
The first seven songs of this 14-track album spotlight both the angelic interplay of the Chicks’ voices and their easygoing finesse in reinventing old wheels. On the Fleetwood Mac sway of “Easy Silence,” Maines decries the hectic pace of modern life in a breathy swoon. “Bitter End” is a bittersweet lover send-off with a rafter-rousing chorus that hits the stirring heights of the Band at its most symphonic.
Best still is when the Chicks flex their knack for finding strong, fearless female characters in the man’s, man’s world of country music. The leadoff title track takes the pedestrian carpe diem theme and turns it into an encouraging push for small-town women who might be wondering about the world beyond “the same ZIP codes where their parents live.”
In two songs the Dixie Chicks take ostensible aim at the criticisms Maines received after making disparaging comments about President Bush at a 2003 London concert. The lead single, “Not Ready To Make Nice,” is a work of gorgeous orchestral pop. It begins in a forlorn mood but eventually finds an unflappable self-reliance: “I’ve paid a price and I’ll keep paying,” Maines sings, and not only does she not deign to apologize for it, she goes on to crow, “I made my bed and I sleep like a baby.”
Even better is “Lubbock or Leave It,” the sort of defiance expected from Sleater-Kinney or Le Tigre, not the biggest-selling female group in Billboard history. Maines tears into this honkytonk rocker as if she were verbally staring down her Texas birthplace, which publicly rejected her after her anti-Bush statements, and sets up one of the more precious kiss-offs in country music right now. “Dust bowl, Bible Belt, got more churches than trees,” she growls in the opening line. “Raise me, praise me, couldn’t save me, couldn’t keep me on my knees.”
Rubin’s brainstorm to push artists outside their comfort zone by teaming them up with eclectic players mined rich musical alchemy with his work on Johnny Cash’s American Recording series and last year’s all acoustic Neil Diamond outing. The pairings on “Taking the Long Way” are less successful, especially on the lackluster second half, because too many personalities are fighting for space. The Chicks are shoehorned into awkward-fitting songwriting threads that make them sound listless and uncertain.
The Finn collaboration “Silent House” stitches Maguire’s violin and Robison’s banjo into the background, mere twang accoutrement to a fairly generic rock stomp that doesn’t even capitalize on Maines’s brassy pipes. The Crow collaboration “Favorite Year” fares worse, with a tired, Lilith Fair guitar chug pumping a generic, sunny melody that sounds too Southern California. At points Maines even restrains her voice, practically mimicking Crow’s mannered rasp. Similar awkwardness afflicts Perry’s pure pop “Voice Inside My Head,” the insurgent country fire of the Louris collaboration “I Like It,” the Wilson co-written “So Hard,” and Peter Yorn and Louris’s winsome “Baby Hold On.”
It’s not just the music that feels off, either – lyrically these songs wander down such well-trodden paths as romantic longing, bootstrap temerity, and other such country-and-western cliches. Only the bluesy, lilting Keb’ Mo’-powered album closer, “I Hope,” clings to the ears.
Radio stations and the so-called country music establishment might still deride the Dixie Chicks’ brio, but to female album and ticket buyers who have also been told to mind their manners and watch what they’ve said in the past, that stigma might not matter one bit.
The Dixie Chicks play on August 1 at Madison Square Garden (4 Penn Plaza, between 31st and 33rd Streets, 212-244-7045).