The Dixie Chicks' Somber New Sound

** FILE ** The Dixie Chicks arrive at a dinner to celebrate Time 100, Time Magazine's list of the 100 most influential people in the world in a Monday, May 8, 2006 photo in New York. The Dixie Chicks are launching a 43-city North American tour in July to promote their new album "Taking the Long Way." (AP Photo/Jason DeCrow, file)
The Dixie Chicks return from a period of hibernation by flashing anger and a more grown-up, rock-influenced sound on the "Taking the Long Way," their first studio album since 2002's Grammy-winning "Home" and the controversy that erupted after singer Natalie Maines criticized the president during a London concert in March 2003.

The righteousness might have been expected; after all, the Texas trio built their reputation with bold lyrics and an uncompromising attitude and musicality. The change in direction isn't a surprise, either; the Chicks have always been adventurous and, besides, after being rejected by country radio and booed at country music award shows, the band announced it would record in Los Angeles with renowned rock producer Rick Rubin and a host of L.A. rock stalwarts.

But what isn't expected is how dour they sound. In the past, Maines and her bandmates, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, used cheeky humor and playful sense of abandon to address everything from leaving home to abusive husbands to sexual freedom. Now their songs are weighed down in bitter appraisals and somber reckoning.

At times, they rock harder than ever, especially on the ferocious "Lubbock or Leave It," a two-barreled blast at small-town hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness titled after Maines' hometown. They also occasionally prove as masterful at injecting a personal Texas spin into melodic rock as they were at enlivening modern country music in the past. The new "Voice Inside My Head," in particular, is a rousingly effective pop song powered by Maines' soaring voice and the harmonies and instrumental talents of Maguire and Robison.

But even with all the top-notch help — including Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, Dan Wilson of Semisonic, and Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers — the Chicks don't quite raise the kind of ruckus that made them such a force to be reckoned with in the past.

By Michael McCall