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A sure feel with some touchy issues

May 21, 2006|Ann Powers

The Dixie Chicks

"Taking the Long Way" (Columbia)

* * * 1/2

THE toughest matters the Dixie Chicks address on "Taking the Long Way" don't involve politics -- not the presidential kind, anyway. Singer Natalie Maines doesn't renege on her anti-Bush comment of 2003, but spunky defiance isn't what makes the trio's new album (in stores Tuesday) so moving. Its power lies in harder-to-grasp songs about women facing hardships far more common than a Red State boycott.

Country songwriting is a domestic art, and the Chicks have had hits with witty glosses on spousal abuse and infidelity, common Nashville themes. Here, they tackle concerns that for whatever reason remain touchier: infertility, Alzheimer's disease, working motherhood. The result is an album Rosanne Cash would have been proud to make, its fervent, forming music raising the ghosts of what's unspoken.

Melancholy permeates these tracks, concentrated in the trio's shifting harmonies and Rick Rubin's notably delicate production. "Hey, it might never be the same," Maines murmurs in the worn-down love song "Baby Hold On"; she's reaching through her own life toward universal but particularly feminine experiences of compromise, questioning, regret. In the plaintive "Voice Inside My Head," Maines imagines herself as a woman who long ago gave up a child -- through adoption or abortion -- and still suffers over a decision she knows was right. Such songs are political in a classic rock sense, speaking reality through guitar riffs and raised choruses.

-- Ann Powers

Albums are rated on a scale of four stars (excellent), three stars (good), two stars (fair) and one star (poor).

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