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Idol Chatter

The “Dixie Chicks” moniker has always been fitting, perfectly personifying the sassy, dynamic, youthful tunes of Natalie Maines, Emily Robison, and Martie Maguire. But their latest album, “Taking The Long Way,” shows that these girls ain’t chicks anymore–they’re wearier, wiser women.

The specter of Maines’s Bush-bashing controversy looms large here, with the single “Not Ready to Make Nice.” But it’s life’s more pedestrian struggles that set the tone for the album: A relative’s struggle with Alzheimer’s (“Silent House”); the hardships of infertility (“It’s So Hard When It Doesn’t Come Easy”), which both Robison and Maguire struggled with; and hope for a peaceful future for the world’s children (“I Hope”).

Although still a country album, the Chicks were already moving into the adult contemporary/pop category with 2002’s “Home” and the smash hit remake of “Landslide.” But having incurred the wrath of the country music community, the biggest-selling female band in history is now consciously turning from its country roots and teaming with uberproducer Rick
Rubin–who recently reinvigorated Johnny Cash’s and Neil Diamond’s careers–to produce an eclectic mix of rock, bluegrass, blues and, yes, a little bit country.

At first listen, I missed the “punk country” of “Goodbye Earl,” or the upbeat optimism of “Wide Open Spaces,” and was distracted by some of the lush string and brass arrangements. But there are no wasted words on this disc, the catharsis is palpable, and Maines’s voice has never sounded better. Crowded House’s Neil Finn, VH1 demi-god Jon Mayer, Keb-Mo, and members of the Heartbreakers are just a few of the big names that contributed to the album, and the results range from inspired gospel–a la Al Green–to Neil Young-like guitar riffs and a lovely, lovely lullaby (“Lullaby”). The gals don’t completely abandon their country roots, throwing in a few high-energy, defiant tracks like “Lubbock or Leave It.”

In last week’s Time magazine cover story, fiddler Maguire said, ”I’d rather have a smaller following of really cool people who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life….” The Chicks certainly have grown with this CD.

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