- NATALIE MAINES
- PISTOL ANNIES
- Annie Up
- LADY ANTEBELLUM
In the seven years since the Dixie Chicks released their last album (2006’s Taking the Long Way), their position as the most successful trio in country music has been taken over by the genre’s least exciting band, Lady Antebellum, while another trio, Pistol Annies, has emerged to carry on their artistic legacy. Both of those groups have new albums out this week, as does erstwhile Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines, who has all but left her fellow Chicks behind.
While Lady Antebellum and Pistol Annies remain consistent on their respective new releases, Maines’ Mother, her first solo album, marks a departure even from the laid-back country-rock of Taking the Long Way. Produced by Ben Harper, who also penned two of the tracks and duets with Maines on the bluesy “Trained,” Mother sounds like an alt-rock singer-songwriter album from the ’90s, when Sheryl Crow spawned a raft of would-be imitators. Maines still has a strong voice, but her covers of artists ranging from Pink Floyd (the title track) to Jeff Buckley (a turgid, seven-minute “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over”) are dreary and lifeless. Only the rollicking roots rock of “Silver Bell,” by frequent Chicks songwriter Patty Griffin, has any spark to it.
The Chicks’ effortless twang and attitude shows up instead on Annie Up, the second album from Miranda Lambert, Ashley Monroe and Angaleena Presley of Pistol Annies. Despite Lambert’s superstar status as a solo artist, Annie Up is a true team effort, with the three members sharing writing credits equally on almost every song, their voices even more integrated than on their 2011 debut. Those voices are loud and strong, too, whether decrying mainstream beauty standards on “Being Pretty Ain’t Pretty,” facing harsh truths on the haunting and sad “Dear Sobriety” or offering a pep talk on “Don’t Talk About Him, Tina.” Annie Up is full of down-home country honesty; it’s vulnerable and sassy and a whole lot of fun to listen to.
And then there’s Lady Antebellum. The country-pop group has achieved the kind of mainstream crossover success that even the Chicks couldn’t manage, but they’ve done it by cranking out some of the blandest, most inoffensive music of the last decade. That trend continues on fourth album Golden, which is full of midtempo mush, songs with only the barest hints of country (just enough for the radio programmers), with generic lyrics drenched in manufactured nostalgia and hooks that are catchy but not memorable. Lead single “Downtown” is at least sort of soulful, but the rest of the album is a pure assembly-line product. It’s the most commercial of the three albums, and also the least interesting.