The Dixie Chicks may have taken country music by storm in 1998, but they were hardly an overnight sensation. Before the three women released "Wide Open Spaces," their 7-million-selling Nashville debut, the Chicks were cowgirl revivalists paying their dues on the Texas dance hall circuit. Their hot-licks picking, shimmering harmonies and flair for wearing vintage Western garb won them a regional following. The group also released three independent-label albums; the title of the first, "Thank Heavens for Dale Evans" (1990), could well have been the trio's credo.
The novelty of the Chicks' approach, retro though it was, eventually landed them a Nashville record deal. But it wasn't until they bought '90s duds, streamlined their twang for radio and hired fireball lead singer Natalie Maines that the group finally took off.
More daring and commanding than its predecessor, their new album, "Fly," due out Tuesday on the Monument label, in large part lives up to its title. Much of this is due to producers Paul Worley and Blake Chancey. The two men put more muscle into the Chicks' sound this time around, whether it's on a driving fiddle-and-steel shuffle like "Hello, Mr. Heartache" or a turbocharged banjo-and-guitar breakdown like "Sin Wagon." On the snarling rave-up "Hole in My Head," the group could almost pass for the erstwhile L.A. punk band X. A number of other songs summon the swagger of Linda Ronstadt circa "Poor Poor Pitiful Me."
The Chicks still play their own instruments and sing their own harmonies, which, despite the album's pop- and rock-leaning production, reveal their deep country roots. Maines handles lead vocals; Martie Seidel plays fiddle and mandolin; while Seidel's sister, Emily Erwin, shifts from banjo to Dobro to lap steel guitar.
The tenor of most of the songs on "Fly," five of them written or co-written by the Chicks, is as heady and freewheeling as the music. "All I wanna do is have fun/ What's all this talk about love," muses Maines on the album's opening track and first single, "Ready to Run." On "Sin Wagon," instead pining for the guy who dumped her, she revels in the prospect of finding another man to share her bed. On "Goodbye Earl," she gives a batterer his comeuppance, taking Rosanne Cash's "Rosie Strike Back" to its logical extreme.
Not everything here brims with vim and vinegar. A couple of the ballads, the overwrought "Cold Day in July" and the frothy "Without You," are just the kind of anonymous soundtrack pap that Nashville prides itself on these days. But only these songs and the simpering "Cowboy Take Me Away" ground an otherwise soaring album.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8181.)
Julie Miller's husband, Buddy, co-wrote one of the tracks on the Dixie Chicks' new album, but that's where any connection between the two Nashville acts ends. Where the Chicks are mostly fun and flash, Miller's folk- and blues-based rock is dark and brooding. Her new album, "Broken Things" (HighTone), is also a rarity in these insular, irony-clad times--a sustained, and deeply empathetic, meditation on human suffering and frailty.
"Maggie" plumbs the heartache, and resiliency, of a woman who was orphaned at age 6. "I Still Cry" mourns the death of Miller's close friend and former drummer, Donald Lindley. Miller wrote the album's wrenching title track for the residents of Omagh, a village in Northern Ireland where a bomb attack killed 29 and injured hundreds.
The predominance of minor chords and aching arrangements on these songs echoes Miller's anguish over the pain of the people she's singing about. In fact, so attuned is Miller to the suffering in her midst that, for her, even nature mirrors its presence. "I know why the river runs/ To a place somewhere far away/ And I know why the sky is cryin'/ When there aren't any words to say," she sings in a voice both gauzy and piercing on "I Know Why the River Runs." The raw-boned intensity with which Miller delivers these lines is positively cathartic.
Sitting in with Miller are her husband and co-producer Buddy, singer-songwriters Steve Earle, Patty Griffin and Victoria Williams as well as NRBQ bass player Joey Spampinato. Emmylou Harris also duets with Miller on "All My Tears," a song that Harris included on her influential "Wrecking Ball" album. But even with this stellar supporting cast, what stands out on "Broken Things" is Miller's singular passion and gift for empathy.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8182.)
Played back-to-back with Miller's breathtaking disc, Trailer Bride's artless new album, "Whine de Lune" (Bloodshot), seems trifling by comparison. Willfully lo-fi, the Tar Heel quartet's music alternates between creaky bluegrass, shambling Delta blues and harmonica-sweetened country-rock reminiscent of the mid-'70s edition of Neil Young and Crazy Horse.
The proceedings revolve around front woman Melissa Swingle, who among other things plays banjo, slide guitar, mandolin and musical saw. As a singer, Swingle has a languid drawl and at times wavering pitch that suggest a cross between Lucinda Williams and Cowboy Junkies vocalist Margo Timmins, leaning more toward the somnolent style of the latter.
Swingle also writes all of Trailer Bride's material, which gives heartbreak and matters of faith, gender and class a decidedly Southern Gothic cast. Incisive yarns like "Work on the Railroad" and "Too Many Snakes" show promise, but as with her singing, too often Swingle's writing comes off as more mannered than felt.
Many '90s alt-country bands succumb to this problem. It's as if they assume, as Trailer Bride seems to have here, that they can make up for their lack of vision with a clutch of old blues and string-band records, a Southern lit reading list and a dash of irony.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8183.)
Redmon & Vale
Redmon & Vale's eponymous debut album (DreamWorks) is the epitome of Nashville's post-Shania formula: Take two young, video-friendly women who can sing, surround them with big hooks and punchy production, and hope like hell that it sells. Like many blatantly commercial projects, "Redmon & Vale" is mostly bluster and blare.
Listening to the duo's debut is like hearing the musical equivalent of a motivational speaker. Their tales of true love ("Pretty Pink House"), doing your own thing ("Rumors") and love finding a way ("Get Lost") are so platitudinous that one would think that all a body needs to overcome adversity is a good dose of down-home pluck.
Things go from annoying to banal when Redmon & Vale assay religion and reproductive freedom. "Last Exit to Eden" suggests that the sanctuary of a steeple can cure all ills. And the antiabortion saga of "In the Name of Love" (written by two men) is even more condescending, casting judgment on every woman who's ever terminated a pregnancy.
(To hear a free Sound Bite from this album, call Post-Haste at 202-334-9000 and press 8184.)