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Dixie Chicks’ Turn From Sassy to Dour

May 19, 2006

Dixie Chicks, ``Taking the Long Way″ (Open Wide/Columbia)

The Dixie Chicks return from a period of hibernation by flashing anger and a more grown-up, rock-influenced sound on the ``Taking the Long Way,″ their first studio album since 2002′s Grammy-winning ``Home″ and the controversy that erupted after singer Natalie Maines criticized the president during a London concert in March of 2003.

The righteousness might have been expected; after all, the Texas trio built their reputation with bold lyrics and an uncompromising attitude and musicality. The change in direction isn’t a surprise, either; the Chicks have always been adventurous, and besides, after being rejected by country radio and booed at country music award shows, the band announced it would record in Los Angeles with renowned rock producer Rick Rubin and a host of L.A. rock stalwarts.

But what isn’t expected is how dour they sound. In the past, Maines and her bandmates, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robinson, used cheeky humor and playful sense of abandon to address everything from leaving home to abusive husbands to sexual freedom. Now their songs are weighed down in bitter appraisals and somber reckoning.

At times, they rock harder than ever, especially on the ferocious ``Lubbock or Leave It,″ a two-barreled blast at small-town hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness titled after Maines hometown. They also occasionally prove as masterful at injecting a personal Texas spin into melodic rock as they were at enlivening modern country music in the past. The new ``Voice Inside My Head,″ in particular, is a rousingly effective pop song powered by Maines’ soaring voice and the harmonies and instrumental talents of Maguire and Robinson.

But even with all the top-notch help _ including Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, Dan Wilson of Semisonic, and Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers _ the Chicks don’t quite raise the kind of ruckus that made them such a force to be reckoned with in the past.

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