Emily Robison, Martie Maguire and lead vocalist Natalie Maines have had a tumultuous three years. Their last album, 2002’s Home, sold over six million copies and netted them four Grammys as they brought their glossy brand of country music to a mass market audience as confidently as Shania Twain had before them.
In their US homeland they were already stars with considerable status before Maines announced to their audience at the Shepherd’s Bush Empire: “Just so you know, we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.”
The subsequent reaction from the US and the UK was striking in its contrast. In their bluegrass heartland, radio stations boycotted their music; erstwhile “fans” sent letters urging Maines to shut up and sing. In the UK, where the Dixie Chicks and their musical style had been essentially beneath the radar, they found a new audience curious about a band willing to speak out against the Iraq war and the extraordinary political situation in the USA.
Within a week Maines found herself making an apology of sorts to Bush, so intense was the pressure on her, but the girls’ new record Taking The Long Way suggests that her rage at how the band’s sometime supporters had treated them was not to be snuffed out so easily. Since Maines vocalised her views on Bush’s regime, Madonna and countless others have taken on the Washington, DC establishment, and Bush’s poll ratings have nosedived. Taking The Long Way appears at a time when Maines’ abhorrence at sharing a birth state with Bush, even to the most isolated, ill-informed hick, has been placed in a clearer context. Their peers have rallied to the girls – guests on this record include Bonnie Raitt and Jon Mayer. Maines has since retracted her apology.
All the odder then that the girls spend 66 languid minutes across 14 tracks essentially being lyrically enraged yet for the most part musically anodyne. Lead single Not Ready To Make Nice is a stark, serious work in which any doubt about Maines’ position is laid to rest in a furious tirade. “I’m mad as hell… they say time heals everything, but I’m still waiting,” she sings, and it’s a reasonable feeling considering how she’s been treated. Yet even for all the pent-up feeling vocally expressed, Rick Rubin’s production feels slicker than a grounded oil tanker’s spewed contents. A stripped-down approach might have done wonders for the song’s inherent power; what we get instead is commercial, radio-friendly fodder. But with such sentiments as it expresses, it’s unlikely to reach those sweet neo-con US radio stations’ playlists – indeed the album has had minimal airplay Stateside.
Much the same could be said for the rest of the album. Where the girls do get adventurous – Lubbock Or Leave It is a rollicker – it’s refreshing, but it doesn’t happen often enough. The title track opens the album and gives a good indication of the next hour – simple guitar chords, strings slapped on like so much syrup, vocal harmonies ad nauseum, produced to within an inch of its life.
The girls do have more to say. So Hard deals with another matter close to home – infertility, an issue both Robinson and Maguire have experienced. Silent House is a melancholy affair that pays tribute to an ill relative. I Hope, which closes the record with Mayer on guitar duties, seems inspired by Hurricane Katrina.
If that all sounds like heavy going, it isn’t. The girls are tackling issues important to them and for that they deserve commendation. But the record’s downfall ultimately is twofold. Too long and musically too conservative, it feels like a change of music style and a sharper focus on what they want to achieve might suit Dixie Chicks well.