By Mark Guarino
Remember the frantic saber rattling on the eve of the Iraq invasion? Whoo-boy, those were good times! Clowns like Toby Keith had credibility, Congress munched on “freedom fries” and The Dixie Chicks were zapped from Clear Channel playlists.
The Dixie Chicks branded freedom haters? Yes, it happened. All it took was lead singer Natalie Maines telling her audience she was ashamed she and President Bush were both from Texas. That was enough to get the Chicks dumped from dozens of country music stations across the nation in March, 2003.
With the president’s ratings at an all-time low, time is the great avenger. In a move that is highly American, the Chicks capitalized on the publicity and made it the basis of “Taking the Long Way” (Columbia/Open Wide), their seventh album, in stores today. Listen to the first half of and the song power is undeniable. Producer Rick Rubin (is there an album he isn’t in charge of these days?) oversteps country music conventions, using sun-kissed California pop on an album whose theme is defiance but, many songs in, could use much more fire.
Rubin’s plan of attack is steadying the troops. “Long Way” is bulked up with A-list songwriting collaborators (Linda Perry, Sheryl Crow, Tim Finn, Keb Mo, Gary Louris of The Jayhawks, Dan Wilson of Semisonic) and musicians (Bonnie Raitt, John Mayer, Mike Campbell of Tom Petty’s Heartbreakers).
The choices ensure familiarity. On “Lubbock or Leave It,” written with Campbell, the gunning guitar line immediately evokes Petty’s “Runnin’ Down a Dream” while the songs featuring Louris are reminiscent of the melancholy pop sound defined by The Jayhawks.
What The Dixie Chicks bring to the table is their story. A few songs directly deal the death threats and general backlash they received these past three years. “How in the world can the words that I said/send somebody so over the edge/that they’d write me a letter sayin’ that I’d better shut up and sing/or my life will be over,” sings Maines (“Not Ready To Make Nice”). These songs have county music accents — banjo, fiddle, pedal steel guitar — but they are generally washed over in favor of bolder pop hooks and rich harmonies. If their 2002 album “Home” (Columbia) embraced the traditional sounds of Nashville, this album is stretched out on the white sands of Malibu.
The anger subsides, which is not beneficial to what follows. Half of this album feels drowsy, with songs tackling serious subjects such as Alzheimer’s and infertility. The Dixie Chicks, including Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, can dutifully do somber, but following the charged-up energy of the album’s first half, most of these coffeehouse ballads blend together and feel like filler.
The Dixie Chicks’ current media campaign positions them as rebellious outsiders. Yet this is an insider’s album that offers nothing but creature comforts. There is fury, but it’s only in a flash. This is music for the cool down.