There’s a trend in current pop-culture criticism toward “consumer reviews,” which amount to little more than recitations of a few key details and two or three descriptive phrases, often lifted verbatim from a press kit, to give the “average” reader an idea of whether or not he or she might like to spend his or her hard-earned money on the product. No one wants to read analyses of form or content or broader context; they want a star rating that validates their own tastes. It’s the reason Roger Ebert and Rolling Stone give three stars or better to fully three-quarters of what they review; it’s not that the products in question really merit such praise, it’s that in trying to validate everyone else’s opinions, you can’t really have one of your own. It’s a reductive and ugly line of unthinking, really, but buried in it is the idea that there’s a certain value to critical objectivity. Since any fanboy can set up a website, it’s important to establish some distance, right?
In the interest of doing just that, I’ve waited a full month since the release of the Dixie Chicks’ Taking the Long Way to go on the record as to why it’s a complete failure of an album and as hatefully sold a product as I’ve ever encountered. It’s been deemed an “important” album in the popular press, presumably because it’s one of the first times that a recording artist, in marketing a new record, has done little more than throw a vitriolic, bile-spewing public temper-tantrum and been championed for the bravery of doing so.
But I’ll get to that soon enough. I’ll begin with the last thing that Taking the Long Way is actually about: the music. In looking to make their break from Nashville, the Dixie Chicks teamed up with producer Rick Rubin, the man behind the best country album of the 1990s, Johnny Cash’s American Recordings. On first impression, that seemed like a smart decision, but the release of Cash’s Personal File (serendipitously, on the same day as the Dixie Chicks’ album) and the overall sonic goo of Taking the Long Way cast significant doubt on how well-prepared Rubin actually is to turn a country star into a rock star. Cash pulled it off because he’s Johnny Cash and, as Personal File reveals, he’d already figured out, long before working with Rubin, the right production gimmick to launch the second half of his career. The Dixie Chicks, in contrast, have said that their mantra in recording Taking the Long Way was, “What would Bruce Springsteen do?” To hear Taking the Long Way, it seems that the answer to that question, per the Dixie Chicks and Rubin, is, “Try to sound like Train.”
From their breakthrough in Nashville (and, moreover, from their origins as a cowgirl band performing on street corners in central Texas), what’s always been most striking about the Dixie Chicks is that they’re truly accomplished, first-rate musicians, and they figured out a compelling way to incorporate their skills with traditional country instruments—Martie Maguire on fiddle, her sister Emily Robison on banjo and several others—into a take on modern pop-country that was as distinctive for their actual artistic credibility as it was for their girl-group gimmick and kicking-ass-and-taking-names attitude. With the exception of Natalie Maines’s long-range missile launcher of a voice, which is placed front-and-center on every track, Taking the Long Way robs the Dixie Chicks of everything that made them distinctive, entirely losing the vitality of their sound. As bird-named bands who play hybrids of rock and country music go, they aimed for “Lyin’ Eyes”-era Eagles and came up with “Hole in the World”-era Eagles: drippy adult contemporary pap that’s non-threatening enough that it could play over the closing credits of a Disney cartoon.
As great a singer as Maines might be, that Robison and Maguire are given next to nothing to do for the bulk of the album is one of its most significant flaws. When they do turn up, it’s as Maines’s backup singers (singing campy doo-wop chants on “I Like It” or leading into orchestral swells that eventually drown them out on “Baby Hold On”) or to provide accents, such as Maguire’s don’t-call-it-a-fiddle on “Bitter End.” Bogged down as it is with guest contributors (Bonnie Raitt, Semisonic’s Dan Wilson, Keb’ Mo’, John Mayer, and, of course, Linda Perry), not one of the songs is founded on the fact that the Dixie Chicks are a band. Taking the Long Way could have been recorded by uncredited session musicians without making the Dixie Chicks seem any less involved in its creation. The Wreckers’ Stand Still, Look Pretty is more effective in establishing a sound.
It’s not just Rubin’s production choices that fail, though—it’s the songwriting. Looking at their impressive catalogue of hit singles, it’s telling that there are just two (“You Were Mine” and “Sin Wagon”) on which at least two-thirds of the trio share a writing credit. Their biggest hits were either written by someone else (“Wide Open Spaces,” “There’s Your Trouble,” “Long Time Gone,” “Travelin’ Soldier”) or by one of the Chicks writing with a collaborator (“Ready to Run,” “Without You”). On their first three albums, the Dixie Chicks irrefutably demonstrated that they’re better at choosing material than at writing it as a group. That’s not a knock against them, but an assessment of where, at this juncture in their career, the Dixie Chicks still had some growing room.
Taking the Long Way, in that sense, finds the Dixie Chicks treading water. Too many of the songs lack a melodic hook altogether (“Silent House” and “Baby Hold On” simply let Maines go for whatever high note might strike her fancy, while “Everybody Knows” and “Favorite Year” are interchangeable in their monotony) or take entirely too long to get there (“Easy Silence” drags on forever and ostensible gospel number “I Hope” plays more like a dirge). But for “Bitter End,” a Celtic-leaning toast song that has the album’s one standout melody, “I Like It,” which unfavorably recalls their cover of “You Can’t Hurry Love” from the Runaway Bride soundtrack, and the harder rock of “Lubbock or Leave It,” the songs are of a nearly uniform midtempo shuffle. It’s all so very restrained and so very tasteful and so very safe and so very predictable. Or to mince fewer words, so very conservative.
The lyrics fare little better, with mixed metaphors (“We all rode the wave/Of that crazy parade” on “Bitter End”), clichéd images (“I can change like colors on a wall” on “Everybody Knows”), sloppy internal repetition (the overuse of “I’m mad as hell” on lead single “Not Ready to Make Nice”), non sequiturs (“Sunday morning, heard the preacher say/Thou Shall Not Kill/I don’t wanna hear nothing else/About killing and that it’s God’s will” is the logic-defying opening stanza of “I Hope”), and grade school rhymes (“The words that you said/They still ring in my head,” also from “Bitter End”) marring nearly every song. “I Hope” is the worst, though, with its “It’s okay for us to disagree/We can work it out lovingly” refrain at odds with the remainder of the album’s tone and its laughable, decidedly un-Wu-Tang “for the children” attitude entirely hypocritical unless the Dixie Chicks plan to drop signature songs like “Goodbye Earl,” “Sin Wagon,” and “White Trash Wedding” from their concert set lists. At this point, it wouldn’t be a surprising move, since it could self-serve as yet another nail in the crosses they’ve been hauling on their promotional rounds.
And for as boring and poorly constructed as the music on Taking the Long Way is, the album truly isn’t about anything more than the Dixie Chicks’ open contempt for both the genre of music that first provided them with a voice and for the audience that responded strongly enough to that voice to make the Dixie Chicks A-list music stars. Martyr complexes rarely make for real art, and the whole of Taking the Long Way is swallowed by its selling not as an album, but as a manifesto of insightful, focused outrage against both a conservative music industry and a political climate that meets any form of dissent with violence.
Which, if that’s what Taking the Long Way actually accomplished, would legitimize the album’s supposed pop-cultural importance, and which would be a cause célèbre that I’d gladly support. Like anyone who recognizes that lying is generally bad and who can read above a fourth grade level should, I fundamentally agree with the Dixie Chicks that the Commander in Chief is a source of the kind of profound shame that’s difficult to articulate in ways that come off much better than “We’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” And I agree with the Dixie Chicks that the country music industry’s reactionary backlash to Maines’s statement—made to an audience in London now more than three years ago—speaks not only to everything that’s ignorant and ugly about the “Good Ol’ Boys” boys’ club mentality that still controls that industry, but to everything that’s ignorant and ugly about the “You’re with us or against us” mentality that has controlled the U.S. government since 9/11.
I can’t—and, what with having a conscience and all, wouldn’t try to—defend a reaction so comprehensively indefensible. And, so entirely removed from the reality of the Dixie Chicks’ situation and knowing of that reality only what they have told the press, I wouldn’t tell them how they should respond to it. But as someone who bought Wide Open Spaces on the day it was released, and as someone who values and will defend both traditional and modern forms of country music, I will say that the way the Dixie Chicks have marketed Taking the Long Way—and again, it’s an album that reduces to its marketing—is every bit as reactionary as what they’re trying to reject.
The most obvious point that the Taking the Long Way woe-is-me blitzkrieg ignores is that this is hardly the first time that the Dixie Chicks have railed against the abuses of the country music industry. Following the release of Fly, the band became embroiled in a lengthy, unpleasant legal battle over royalties. They won their lawsuit, but it left them, understandably, bitter and disgusted with the way Nashville operates. In response, they took the moral high road by letting their music speak for itself. “Long Time Gone,” the first single from Home and handily the best country single of the decade thus far, not only outclassed everything played on country radio at the time of its release, it took several shots at the state of radio: “They sound tired, but they don’t sound Haggard/They got money, but they don’t have Cash.” More so than Maines’s remark about Dubya, shipping the five-minute-long, banjo-driven “Long Time Gone” to radio still stands as the ballsiest thing the Dixie Chicks have ever done.
Whether or not the country industry would’ve found another way to marginalize the Dixie Chicks had Maines not said what she did is purely speculative. But it’s curious that the Dixie Chicks’ history on Music Row has been omitted from the promotion of Taking the Long Way, and even more curious that, for all of their claims of not being ready to make nice, they’ve chosen to give up the fight altogether—especially since it’s a fight that, again, they’re well-equipped to win. With the possible exceptions of Miranda Lambert, Brad Paisley, and Gary Allan, there’s really no other currently popular act in mainstream country that can hang with the Dixie Chicks when they’re on top of their game. You still have full creative control over your career, the across-the-board support of the critical community who will ensure your rightful place among the genre’s all-time greats, and a legion of fans that includes the new converts you won because of your outspokenness. What, really, have you lost?
It’s not clear how the Dixie Chicks would answer that. What is clear, instead, is that in their zeal to discredit country music and its fans, they won’t hesitate to adopt a condescending attitude and some carefully chosen revisionist history. To pick yet another obvious example, the Dixie Chicks insist that Taking the Long Way is an album intended to break them to a wider pop audience. What this ignores, of course, is that their most traditional album, the nearly all-acoustic Home, included their first crossover hit, a cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide,” and still moved more than six million copies in spite of “the incident.” Moreover, it raises the questions of exactly how big the Dixie Chicks think the country-only demographic is, and why they assume that the 12 million people who bought Wide Open Spaces and the 10 million who bought Fly didn’t already represent precisely the broad pop audience they’re now courting.
Maguire has given some indication, though, stating, “I’d rather have a small following of really cool people who get it, who will grow with us as we grow and are fans for life, than people that have us in their five-disc changer with Reba McEntire and Toby Keith. We don’t want those kinds of fans. They limit what you can do.” It’s an awfully big statement—far bigger and nastier than anything Maines has ever gone on record as saying—from someone who used to dress up like Dale Evans, playing her fiddle while standing behind an open guitar case and performing for tip money. And it outs the Dixie Chicks as guilty of the exact same brand of ridiculous overgeneralizations and stereotypes as Keith, McEntire, and those DJs who rented a steamroller to flatten copies of their albums. As much as a misogynist like Keith wants loudmouthed women like the Dixie Chicks to know their rightful place, the Dixie Chicks, it seems, want to handpick who buys Taking the Long Way.
Well, far be it from this fan—one who, just two months ago, figured himself for a lifer, and who has never owned an album by either McEntire or Keith—to limit the Dixie Chicks from making music as bland as Taking the Long Way. And I know that liking country music has never been cool, and I know that writing music criticism has never been cool. But I also know that “getting” why the Dixie Chicks’ first three albums were great and that “getting” why Taking the Long Way is a shit storm that’s only about a storm of shit has nothing whatsoever to do with cool and everything to do with having respect for the power of popular music to move people, regardless of genre labels or political beliefs. And more importantly, I also know that artists who think so highly of themselves that they think they can decide who defines the audience that is allowed to respond to their art don’t deserve to have an audience at all. I’d be willing to bet that Bruce Springsteen knows that too. The Dixie Chicks, though, are starting down the long road to finding that out.
Label: Columbia Release Date: July 7, 2006 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon