A Review of Natalie Maines' "Mother"
Natalie Maines, third generation scion of a family prominant in the fertile independent and innovative musical scene of the Texan Llano Estacado, became best known as the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, during and after their Nashville years, as Mainstream Country's commercially dominant and artistically exciting trio. Ms. Maines' recorded work outside that group has hitherto been sparse - an early Western ballad, "White Woman's Clothes", with family friend Andy Wilkinson, a strong pre-Dixie Chicks duet with Pat Green on the Townes Van Zandt classic "Snowin' on Raton", and more recent duets with Tony Bennett and Neil Diamond, and a Rick Rubin produced cover of the Beach Boys' "God Only Knows".
This album, therefore, represents an important career step for the talented singer - making her the last of the trio to break the major recording hiatus decided during the "Accidents and Accusations" tour of 2006, but not apparent to fans until after the 2007 Grammys.
The album contains ten tracks, mainly covers - but within that compass, Ms. Maines and her collaborator-producer, Ben Harper, have succeeded in achieving a considerable stylistic variety.
As a long term Country Music fan, my attention focused first on her two Alt. Country covers, and these certainly didn't disappoint. Ms. Maines' vocal experience gave a pleasing new interpretation of the Jayhawks' "I'd Run Away" - helped notably by Mr. Harper's steel playing. But the absolute standout for me was her version of Patty Griffin's "Silver Bell". This song has been performed by Ms Griffin in concert, but not previously given an album release, and has been regarded by fans as something of a "lost" song. With strong work from Mr. Harper's band, the Js, this is not only the most Country-sounding number on the album, but, in my opinion closer to the Country Music ethos than much of the Dixie Chicks' last album (or, for that matter, much of the material heard on Mainstream Country radio)
Of the other songs, I posted an earlier review of the title track, "Mother", here: http://www.twitlonger.com/show/kj5hch
The most interesting, and arguably most artistically complex, of the newly heard tracks is her cover of Jeff Buckley's "Lover, You Should've Come Over". This would be a brave choice for any singer, but it proves to be one of Ms. Maines' most successful contributions. Her vocal interpretation transcends genre, blending elements of Folk, Country and Soul into one of the most haunting and beautiful numbers on the album.
Another standout for me was Ben Harper's "Vein in Vain" - a song which pre-dates this album, but to which Ms. Maines has added some additional touches for the recording. Together with the Buckley song, this shows her at her most sensitive and vulnerable as a lyrical interpreter.
Rather less memorable, for me, was the opening track, a cover of Eddie Vedder's "Without You". This is partly because Mr. Vedder's ukelele original comes across as more emotional and intimate, in contrast to the rather heavy musical production adopted here, which, at least for me, led to a prolonged repetitive introduction and a backing which threatened to overshade Ms. Maines' vocal - she was, in fact, at her best here when the backing eased to allow her to emphasize the "Be the same" phrases. (Strong backing certainly has its place - as, for example. on the feisty, but poignantly written, rocking Ben Harper original, "Trained", but seemed less successful here) But my reservations on the Vedder track are also due to my feeling that she is less notable as a nuanced vocalist when dealing with the rather "lighter" mood of songs such as this and Dan Wilson's "Free Life", when compared with the more aching emotion of the standouts reviewed above.
Two songs of special interest to Dixie Chick fans may be the closing numbers "Come Cryin' To Me", an earlier co-write involving all three Chicks, and "Take It On Faith", a new collaboration involving Ms. Maines herself. "Come Cryin' To Me" was considered for the "Taking the Long Way" album, and its references to California and the bittersweet search for solace reflect the narrative themes of that era. "Take It On Faith" was written with Mr. Harper and his lead guitarist, Jason Mozersky, and bassist, Jesse Ingalls - a reminder of the key role the musicians play in this procuction. The song is a fitting closing showcase for Ms. Maines as vocalist, and the lap steel passage by Mr. Harper emphasizes his contribution to this project (Given the Dixie Chick back story, it's understandable that this should be billed as a Natalie Maines solo album, but in the Alternative sector, a recording of this type could just as easily appear as a joint Natalie Maines/Ben Harper collaboration).
I have not been one of those fans who have concluded that the Dixie Chicks will not record again. I think there is a good chance that some new work will be heard at the Canadian festivals this year, and I think it is still an open question whether they will find enough stylistic common ground to make an another album one day. I'm also aware that interest in the Dixie Chicks is still strong, especially among the fans of the younger female singers in Mainstream Country, for whom they were often the soundtrack to their formative years. These were largely not the people who turned against them, and they are not as "dead" to that demographic as some of the more stereotyping acounts (from both sides) would have us believe. Nevertheless, it is clear from interviews that Natalie Maines herself is personally committed to emphasizing a different aspect of her musical persona - and I wish her well in that. The main thing is that she has achieved with this album an important breakthrough, which shows her as a sensitive and musically wide ranging artist. I hope it will be a forerunner of more work from one of the most distinctive voices of the contemporary scene.