Much has changed on the musical landscape for the Dixie Chicks since the Incident in London three years ago when lead singer Natalie Maines criticized President Bush on the eve of the Iraq war. The trio lost its standing on the country radio scene; their albums were burned, and they received death threats.But Emily Robison, Martie Maguire and Maines do not backpedal on these 14 songs. They, instead, address the issues that have faced them head on time and again. "Not Ready to Make Nice" maintains a distinct sense of defiance, in effect, telling country radio to -- off. Not surprisingly, the song has not done well. On "Bitter End," they wonder where their fans have gone who took part of the wine (the music), but now have left them high and dry.
The new disc represents a musical change as well. For starters, they enlisted producer Rick Rubin, who worked wonders with Johnny Cash. Rubin presumably turns in a few deft changes here as well. For starters, this is not the bluegrass album that "Home" was, nor the more straight forward country of previous efforts.The Chicks wrote all 14 songs here, while receiving help from folks like Keb 'Mo', Dan Wilson of Semisonic fame, Gary Louris of The Jayhawks, Mike Campbell of Tom Petty's Heartbreakers. Help also is forthcoming from Bonnie Raitt sings back-up vocals while Chad Smith of the Red Hot Chili Peppers pound the skins.
Country is absolutely part of the mix here, though a California sound exists to the proceedings with layered vocals often used ("Hold On," "I Like It").
Maines' vocals remain quite strong as usual, while Robison and Maguire do their usual excellent turn on backing harmonies. There is a real coherence to their singing and sound. Strings often are used as well. Rubin seems to add just the right instrumentation whether it be a quick piano run or acoustic guitars.And they go for a gospel sound on the anti-war "I Hope," a fitting end to an album that often looks back instead of forward with the hope of people "losing their hate and misery."
The Dixie Chicks surely don't stand still here. Chances are they won't be embraced by the country crowd, but give the Chicks credit for putting out a record that doesn't gloss over things, while standing strong musically.