Sunday, May 12, 2013

Kat's Korner: Natalie Maines releases a mother of an album

Kat: "Free Life" pulsates musically throughout but finds even more life on the bridge when Natalie Maines drops down to more of a purr right before the music kicks back into gear.  The Dan Wilson track asks, "What you going to spend your free life on?"  As such, it's probably the best starting point for Mother, Natalie's new album.

As most know, on the eve of the Iraq War, country music super group the Dixie Chicks were performing in London.  The audience had banners and signs protesting the expected war.  Addressing the crowd in the middle of the concert, singer Natalie Maines noted that they weren't proud Bully Boy Bush was from Texas.  Immediately, a right-wing backlash hit the US.  Radio stations were ordered not to play the songs, as came out in a Senate hearing.  Some country stations didn't have huge calls ins and complaints.  But in the age where corporations gobbled up everything, corporations controlled the airwaves.  The moment would underscore the need for media deregulation and the dangers of consolidation.

It would also end the Dixie Chicks on the airwaves.  Immediately, their cover of  Stevie Nicks' "Landslide" went from top ten hit to out of the top forty, all in one week's charting.  When they returned with their classic album Taking The Long Way, it sold millions, but who could play it?

Country gave it token airplay.  It wasn't pop.  They were a band with immense talent, making great recordings and there was no real outlet for them to get airplay from.

Just last month, Texas Monthly was playing dumb with "Who Killed The Dixie Chicks?" on their cover.  In an idiotic article, it was noted that Chicks had been "banished from country music.  They still haven't found their way back." 

I don't know that the group's called it quits but I know they can't find "their way back."

That's because they aren't the problem.  The problem is those in country music who attacked the Chicks and those who stayed silent.  Because the war came home, baby, and it was ugly as hell.

Rural communities, where country tends to do better? They were the most often effected by the Iraq War.  More likely to see people from their communities serve.  And more likely to see them come home wounded or not come home at all.

In March 2003, it was real easy for a lot of people to kick the Chicks -- dee jays, gas bags, fellow musicians --  and lap at the crotch of Bully Boy Bush, treat the illegal war as a rah-rah-rah.  But when an overseas war comes home, it's rarely pretty.  And what dee jay or country artists wants to remind the families dealing with loss that they were rah-rah-ing the war, cheering it on, treating it like a video game?

Embracing the Chicks today would require admitting their own crimes.  How they tried to beat down dissent by bulling country's most promising group, country's most successful group.  And that's too much reality for cowards who make and broadcast country music.

Which goes a long way towards explaining why Natalie Maines has a solo album today.

There's only one road
In and out of my heart
I don't know where it ends
I don't know where it starts
But the night is young
Younger than we
So let's burn right and wrong
I'll forgive you
And you'll forgive me
Take it on faith
That I'll be there when the pain comes

I'm being hard on country music and they've earned it.  I'm not being hard on the listeners of country music.  Even when the corporations put an end to Dixie Chick airplay, the fans still bought the albums, still bought tickets to the concerts.

So when I listen to "Take It On Faith," I hear a hug from Natalie to all the Dixie Chicks' listeners, past and present.  Some of them got caught up in the hyseria, but she's not blaming them for what the media did.

The song was written by Natalie, Ben Harper, Jason Mozersky and Jesse Ingalls.  Of the ten tracks, it's one of only three that Natalie took part in the writing of.  The Dixie Chicks wrote 'Come Cryin' To Me" with Gary Louris and it's a strong uptempo number.

But the real stand outs are the ones that give Natalie room to shade and accent her vocals.  The late Jeff Buckley breathed new life into Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" when he covered it (and made it seem beautiful as opposed to creepy).  Similarly, Natalie finds a new angle on Buckley's  "Lover, You Should Come Over." It's not bluesy, it's blues.   And what she does -- with a strong assist from Ben Harper on slide guitar -- with "Without You" is equally impressive.  Harper and Maines co-produced the album The throwaway and forgettable track from Eddie Vedder's failed Ukulele Songs gets resurrected here into something so much more impressive than Vedder's lyrics would indicate possible.  Again, the key is to giving Natalie some room so gone are is the Tiny Tim double-time approach and tempo Vedder previously brought to the song.

Patty Griffin's provided many strong songs for the Dixie Chicks ("Top of the World," "Let Him Fly" and "Truth No. 2") and Natalie wisely chooses to interpret Griffin's kick-ass "Silver Bell" (which Griffin wrote with Adam Steinberg). The modifications here are minor (a higher key and the drums high in the mix) but it's her second best interpretation on the album.

Her best?

Roger Waters' "Mother."   Sinead O'Connor got tremendous attention in 1990 when she left her mark on the Pink Floyd track.  Some loved that a woman was singing the song, some declared it sacrilege. Rarely was the actual singing and all that Sinead brought to the song discussed.  Hopefully, we're all the past the 'shock' that a woman could sing "Mother" and we can just enjoy the amazing performance Natalie's provided.

This is a really special album.  "Mother," "Lover, You Should Come Over," "Silver Bell," "Free Life" and "Take It On Faith" grab you and shake you immediately while the other tracks sneak up at a slower pace.  Listening, I had the same excitement I had when I listened to the first five tracks of The Joshua Tree the day it came out.  I then flipped it over (this was the days of cassettes) and felt they'd blown it with "Red Hill Mining Town."  Blown the atmosphere and the mood.  This album has been sequenced well, first of all, and it holds up when played in full.  You don't need to grab the remote to skip tracks.  In an era when downloads have made many pop-tarts (of both genders) believe that it's all about the one track, Natalie's managed to record an album -- not just a collection of songs, an actual album.

I'm really curious where she goes next.  Does she move more towards the blues, does she move more towards atmosphere? Will it be something completely different?  And I'm reminded that, outside of Joni Mitchell, so very few artists have ever made us wonder that.  Mother's a great statement.  More important, it's a great listen.