Dixie Chicks are still pissed. Three years after being hung out to dry by a neo-conservative country-music community that once embraced Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash, the pop-bluegrass trio has returned with a new album and new confidence, now that Natalie Maines' once-scandalous dismissal of George W. Bush has begun to mirror the opinion polls. Taking The Long Way's lead single, "Not Ready To Make Nice," is practically one long "told you so," and though it's too maudlin by half, there's something refreshingly honest about the song's we're-not-sorry sentiment.
And it's far from the only dose of vinegar on the record. Taking The Long Way opens with "The Long Way Around," where Maines boasts that she "wouldn't kiss all the asses they told me to," and the album ends with the gospel-tinged "I Hope," an overt anti-war anthem with lines like "Let's learn from our history / and do it differently." If anything, Taking The Long Way is overly blunt, as though the group felt it has an image to maintain. The anger feels calculated.
There's calculation in the music as well. Dixie Chicks have always been best at winsome string-band ballads, and there are a few good ones on Taking The Long Way, like the mellifluous "Silent House," with its mournful fiddle-and-banjo accents and haunting melody (co-written with Neil Finn), and the Linda Ronstadt/Fleetwood Mac soft-rock stylings of "Voice Inside My Head" (co-written with Linda Perry). But even the atmospheric bluegrass number "Lullaby" sounds like something Alison Krauss could do just as well or better, and songs like "Favorite Year" and "Baby Hold On" tend toward roots-ballad slop. Dixie Chicks have won almost as many supporters as enemies with their anti-Bush comments, but the new brood likely won't stick around unless the music becomes as impassioned as the rhetoric.