As two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks, sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire have a storied history of setting their personal and professional dramas to music. Though they’ve often been overshadowed by the outsized personality and ginormous voice of Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maines, the sisters step confidently into the spotlight on their debut as a duo, Court Yard Hounds. The idea for the project originated in the dissolution of Robison’s marriage to the fantastically gifted singer-songwriter Charlie Robison, and the fallout from that divorce informs much of the record.
Divorce is a topic that the two women have already proven they can do well: “You Were Mine,” a response to their parents’ split, was one of the hit singles from the Chicks’s Wide Open Spaces, and it remains a highlight of the band’s catalogue. Here, the firsthand experiences give their thoughtful considerations of doomed relationships real resonance. Robison’s melancholic “Fear of Wasted Time,” which closes the set, finds the singer owning her insecurities, while “Gracefully,” the only song on which Maguire sings lead, impresses for its self-awareness and the consistency of its tone.
Even the record’s uptempo cuts share in the heartbreak. On sunny lead single “The Coast,” some enthusiastic handclaps carry Robison through casually dismissive lines like “I still want you to know/I found a place to feel a whole lot better.” The exuberant “It Didn’t Make a Sound,” with its Jerry Lee Lewis-style piano power chords, is even more effective in playing up this type of ironic discrepancy between form and content.
That the songs are solidly constructed gives Court Yard Hounds ample opportunity to play around with structure and production. “I Miss You” is simply embarrassing thanks to an awful hook (“And I miss you/I can’t wait to kiss you”), but the rest of the songs showcase more sophisticated writing. “Delight (Something New Under the Sun)” starts as a conventional country-folk song before exploding into a forceful hard-rock chorus, and “See You in the Spring,” a duet between Robison and Jakob Dylan, draws a clever parallel between incompatible personalities and Seasonal Affective Disorder. The highlight of the set is “Ain’t No Son,” written from the point of view of a father who reacts deplorably to his son’s coming out. Fiery and powerful, it’s easily one of the finest songs that Robison and Maguire have penned. If there’s a knock against “Son,” it’s that Robison’s voice doesn’t quite have the punch to match the aggressive, rock-leaning arrangement. Were it re-recorded on the next Dixie Chicks album, it’s a song that Maines would absolutely kill.
Perhaps what’s most interesting about Hounds, then, is how it fits into the narrative arc of Robison and Maguire’s career. It actually invites fewer of those “How would this sound with Natalie singing it?” comparisons than it does to another artist: Sheryl Crow. Given their virtuosity with traditional country instruments, the production here quite easily could have been a largely acoustic, bluegrassy affair. Instead, the record splits the difference between the rootsier moments of Crow’s self-titled album and the poppier style of C’mon, C’mon. That Robison’s vocal tone matches Crow’s to the point of distraction only heightens that overall effect.
Artistically and commercially, there are far worse acts than Crow for Court Yard Hounds to sound like, and the overall sound of the album is far more distinctive and carries more of Robison and Maguire’s signature picking than did the Chicks’s Taking the Long Way. It’s unlikely that country radio will embrace Court Yard Hounds given their complicated and thorny history—though, by all rights, songs like “Coast” and “Sound” deserve airplay alongside terrific recent singles by Miranda Lambert, Gary Allan, and Little Big Town—and the lack of a headline-grabbing political bent won’t help spur interest in the project. But if the album represents the new direction that they’re taking, without or preferably with Maines, that makes Court Yard Hounds far more valuable than the average side project.