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Saturday, August 15, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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New name, new sound – but the Chicks still sound like the truth

UPDATED: Thu., July 30, 2020

By Chris Richards Washington Post

It’s unseemly to pity our pop stars when we already bathe them in so much fame and money, but let’s remember that these are atypical human beings with a precarious task: squaring their uncommon lives with millions of common ones.

Getting it right is difficult. When a big name leans into the extravagance of their own celebrity, it can sound alienating and tacky like so many Weeknd songs. But when an even bigger star pretends to be a normal American, it can feel fraudulent and corny, like Taylor Swift or Bruce Springsteen in their thinnest moments. (Also, what’s a normal American?) For even the most sincere and intrepid voices in popland, the Goldilocks zone remains terra incognita.

Natalie Maines may have recently found hers at sea. “You can tell the girl who left her tights on my boat that she can have you now,” Maines snaps on “Gaslighter,” a new album from the Chicks, the resurgent country trio that recently dropped the “Dixie” from its name. “Tights on My Boat” is a song about the discovery of a real-life infidelity and its gnarly aftermath, and while the salacious lyrical details might slack your jaw, it’s Maines’ ability to align her multitudes that’ll knock you in the guts. She didn’t edit the song’s setting to make her story more relatable. She’s a Texas-born Californian divorcée with a big yacht and a big heart, and whenever she sings, she sounds like a superstar who knows how to tell the truth.

Seventeen years ago, her honesty transformed the Chicks into pariahs – and, later, into heroes. Remember back in March 2003, when President George W. Bush was beating his war drums for the invasion of Iraq? Maines made a declaration at a London concert that would change the shape of her career and the shape of country music writ large: “We’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” Those 12 words have hung over the Chicks ever since, usually with the righteous pacifism that preceded them conveniently ignored: “We do not want this war, this violence.”

But by expelling the Chicks from the Nashville biodome for speaking truth to power, the country music biz only exposed its own hypocrisy. Weren’t country singers supposed to be underdogs who told the truth? No, they’re supposed to be men who toe the company line, Nashville seemed to say. Women’s voices began to evaporate from the airwaves along with the Chicks’, ushering in a new era where the men who programmed all the radio playlists made sure that men scored the biggest hits. Only recently has the tide started to turn with the sustained success of Maren Morris and Kelsea Ballerini, two outspoken young women among many who point directly to the Chicks as lodestars.

Maines and her bandmates, Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer, say they have no illusions about returning to country radio in 2020. So then who is “Gaslighter” for, exactly? Musically, it seems aimed at the widest possible audience, with cordial, gusting, high-polish production from Jack Antonoff, the guy Swift, Lorde and Lana Del Rey have all hired to sit at the controls. But thematically, “Gaslighter” seems largely closed off from the outside world, with Maines revisiting her recent divorce for lyrical kindling. It’s a bright-dark-country-pop album about how lies can burn.

You can feel the album’s polarities at the beginning and the end. The curtain-raising title track takes flight with Queen-ish blasts of a cappella harmony, then follows acoustic guitars and banjos as they run from a tidal wave of artificial bass. “Acting all above it when our friends divorced,” Maines seethes directly to her ex. “What a lie.” But by the time the trio reaches its finale ballad, “Set Me Free,” Maines is seeking resolution. “The weight of this hate was exhausting,” she confesses. A minimal string arrangement quietly generates max-melodrama.

Strange, then, how the most casual moment on “Gaslighter” feels like the most important. It happens during “Texas Man,” a rebound ditty about how Maines wants a new guy – a Texan “who can feel at home, yeah, here in the California sand.” Again, she’s a heartbroken multimillionaire, mentioning her beachfront property without drawing too much attention to it. And while her vocal melodies follow friendly pop contours, the guitars sound detuned and percussive, rickety and bedraggled. “I’m a little bit unraveled,” Maines sings, underscoring that terrific sound-as-metaphor, “but I’m ready.”

This isn’t grand, sweeping, comeback-album stuff. It’s fresh and inventive and optimistic, and it might speak to the Chicks’ current creative position better than any other cut on the record. It’s a song about what’s been overcome, but it’s also a song about what might be coming next.

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