I have a confession to make.
I actually got a sneak peak of the Dixie Chicks new album three weeks ago when I was lucky enough to score tickets to a live taping of an NBC special slated to air in December. The Chicks – a very pregnant Emily Robison, proud mama Natalie Maines, and giggling newlywed Martie Maguire – played straight through the new material from Home, and then treated the sold-out crowd at LA’s Kodak Theater to four older favorites.
Newly victorious in negotiations with Sony Music, the Chicks were in high spirits, occasionally flubbing harmonies and missing cues because a silly fan or a sillier story about marriage or pregnancy tickled one or all three. Maines was all decked out in her Stevie Nicks best, a gypsy-cut dress and knee-high black suede boots, her long blond hair crimped and teased out from her head. The waifish Maguire towered feet over the other two in stiletto heels, and called her husband “honey” from the stage. Robison merely looked ready to pop.
The experience was wonderful, but it just isn’t the best way to hear new music. My very handsome date and I were plucked off the back row of the mezzanine and put in camera-friendly boxed seats, so I spent a lot of time wondering if I was sitting up straight, or if I was falling out of my new corset. Looking back on it now, I was trying so hard to look like I was paying attention and having fun, that I wasn’t able to pay attention at all.
What a relief, then, to finally have the album in hand, and to be able to form solid opinions of the new songs.
The Dixie Chicks are at their best when musicianship takes center stage. The first single, “Long Time Gone,” pits Maguire’s fiddle against Robison’s banjo, and is a clear reminder that these aren’t just beautiful women: They’re talented as hell. “White Trash Wedding,” written when Maguire realized “those folks on Jerry Springer are just a little bit more white trash” than she is, is a raucous romp in the same vein as “Sin Wagon” from Fly. “Lil’ Jack Slade,” named for Maines’ little boy and on which she does not appear, is a curious instrumental. “Slade” sounds like The Chieftains gone country.
That said, it’s never a bad thing for Maines’ twangy vocals to take center stage. “Travelin’ Soldier,” with its rat-a-tat-tat drum cadence, felt almost weepy live, but on the album it becomes a standout. “Godspeed (Sweet Dreams)” is a tearjerker of a lullaby written by a father separated from his son. My favorite song is the closing one, “Top of the World,” and it is beyond a doubt a high point for the Dixie Chicks. Like “Heartbreak Town” from Fly, this song doesn’t pull any emotional punches. Written from the point-of-view of a man who’s died, leaving behind a wife and years of regret, “Top of the World,” is chilling. Lead vocals, harmonies, and instruments are all perfect. Nothing is extraneous.
There are some muddy parts in the middle of the album (the songs “More Love” and “I Believe in Love” in particular) where the sentiment gets a little gloppy. And as gorgeous as the remake of Nicks’ “Landslide” is, it’s slightly disappointing to find a cover song on the album. The sound on all the songs is signature, but the messaging remains rather standard. It’s like the old joke that country music is nothing but pick-up trucks and cheating wives. For the Chicks it’s too-little-too-late relationships and regret. As good as Home is, it feels sort of like standing still, albeit in a very good place.