There's something almost timid about erstwhile Dixie Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maines's solo debut, Mother. Maines has kept a relatively low profile during the nearly seven years since Taking the Long Way cut the Chicks' ties with country music. For an artist as well known for her outspokenness as for her extraordinary voice, to break such a lengthy silence with a conservative, tasteful-to-a-fault covers album like Mother speaks to an underlying uncertainty on Maines's part. However welcome it may be to hear her voice again, it's ultimately her decision to play things so safe that keeps Mother from being a wholly satisfying return.
In her recent interviews with Howard Stern and NPR, Maines has made clear the kind of music she didn't want to record as a solo artist, putting even further distance between herself and her past as one of the most critically acclaimed and commercially successful acts in country-music history. She's been far less specific about her intended new direction, and the vague references she's made to "rock" during her promotional rounds are reflected in Mother's anonymous aesthetic. Enlisting Ben Harper and his backing band as her collaborators, Maines has settled on a style of adult pop that has just a few more frayed edges and rock signifiers than the Starbucks-approved Taking the Long Way did.
There's nothing inherently wrong with Maines's decision to move in this direction, as she has the voice for it. But there's little to no risk to any of Harper's production choices to make the album at all distinctive. Even when Maines's performances expose the grittiness in songs like Eddie Vedder's "Without You" and Patty Griffin's "Silver Bell," the production is overly polished and tame, while the gospel flourishes on "Take It on Faith" and the roots-music instrumentation on "Come Cryin' to Me" (a song leftover from the Taking the Long Way sessions) are obvious, predictable choices given the overt genre signifiers embedded in their lyrics. Harper's production is largely polite and forgettable, the exception being "Trained," with its ill-fitting funk groove, an awkward, strident performance from Maines, and a backing track that recalls early Maroon 5 far more than Prince.
The ineffectual Tina Turner-like strut of "Trained" notwithstanding, Maines is still armed with one of pop music's most powerful instruments, and her immediately recognizable voice does all of the album's heavy lifting. However much Maines may try to disavow country music, the influences of powerhouse country vocalists Maria McKee and Joy Lynn White are all over her phrasing, which can bring a real sense of heft to songs as relatively slight as "Come Cryin' to Me" and "Vein in Vain." Although her interpretation of "Silver Bell" hews close to the original version, she revels in the seediness of the song, and she's at her most uninhibited during the final refrains of Dan Wilson's "Free Life." Her rendition of Jeff Buckley's "Lover, You Should Have Come Over" is less successful, relying on the reedier timbre of her voice and some of the yelping tendencies in her phrasing, but few singers have either the pipes or the balls to cover anything of Buckley's other than his arrangement of "Hallelujah."
Mercifully, Maines's song choices are less overdone than that. The Buckley and Vedder covers are unexpected, and neither the Griffin nor Dixie Chicks songs had seen proper releases prior to Mother. As fine as most of the songs are on their own merits though, the album lacks any real coherence or greater sense of purpose or clarity. It begs the questions, after seven long years, why these songs and why now? To that end, the album doesn't really succeed in re-establishing Maines as a solo artist with a clear identity. Instead, Mother is rarely anything more than a reminder that Maines is a gifted, dynamic singer—and that's something that's been apparent since 1998's Wide Open Spaces.