‘Gaslighter’ Review: With a New Sound and Vision, the Chicks Don’t Need Dixie
It has been 14 years since Natalie Maines, Emily Strayer, and Martie Maguire closed the history of the Dixie Chicks with their album “Taking the Long Way.” Since then, they’ve toppled the Civil War epithet like a Confederate statue and are now dancing on the rubble. Crossing a line which divides history, these veteran ladies of country won’t be whistling “Dixie” anymore. If this were a true rebranding, they might have retained the X and called themselves the Chix, still the Texas trio are celebrating the kind of personal liberation which inspires deep and enduring blues.
The Chicks began as a bluegrass quartet in 1989, which included guitarist Robin Lynn Macy and upright bassist Laura Lynch, who was the original lead vocalist. Named after Little Feat’s 1973 song “Dixie Chicken,” they recorded traditional cowgirl country, like 1990’s “Thank Heavens for Dale Evans” album. When Lynch quit in the mid ‘90s, she was replaced by Maines. Then, they broke through on a major scale with 1998’s “Wide Open Spaces.” The leadoff single, “I Can Love You Better,” was the group’s first Top 10 country hit, and recently the Chicks became both the highest-selling female and country group in America.
However, their personal politics have resonated stronger with their crossover fans than those of their own country genre. Maines was so angry about the war in Iraq, that on March 10, 2003, she said she was ashamed to come from the same state as President Bush. Maines was pressured into saying she was sorry, but rescinded her apology in 2006, before the Chicks put out the “Taking the Long Way” album. It sold well, and earned them five Grammys, including Album of the Year, but the band was ostracized by country fans and some of their genre’s fellow musicians. Country radio boycotted the album, but as the song says, the Chicks were “Not Ready to Make Nice.”
Complete with their flawless three-part harmonies, the Chicks have returned triumphant on their latest album. Co-produced by Jack Antonoff, who helped take the country out of Taylor Swift, “Gaslighter” is an update for the Chicks, finding the trio venturing further into the pop realm while remaining true to their bluegrass roots. It is essentially Natalie’s break-up album, chock-full of revealing lyrics, where Maines does everything but name names, and multi-instrumentalist sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer are right alongside her to add fuel to the fire.
The title track is a bold and empowering breakup anthem, and the music video, with its vintage Hollywood footage splashed by moments of vibrant color, is designed to make anyone a true believer in these new Chicks. Released as their first single, “Gaslighter” is about Maines’ ex-husband, actor Adrian Pasdar. They went through a problematic divorce, and heartbreaking and painful as that may have been, it makes for incisive songwriting. Maines gets to air the dirty laundry about the actor who got bit in the neck in the vampire classic “Near Dark,” and went Hollywood. He may be a hero to some, but the jury will be out until we know what he did on that boat. The song opens with the Chicks’ singing in an a cappella harmony before the strum of the first chords, “Gaslighter, denier / Doin’ anything to get your ass farther / Gaslighter, big timer / Repeating all of the mistakes of your father.” They make the realization of betrayal as fun as it can possibly be, with each chorus building to a climax of harmonic reverie. They’re reveling in the anger.
“Sleep at Night” opens with tightly recorded brush drums interacting with Strayer’s banjo with funky intimacy. The rhythmic patterns drop like footfalls as Maines sings about getting calls from her “husband’s girlfriend’s husband” and meeting the woman backstage. “How messed up is that,” she asks. Divorce is one of the main themes of the ever so popular country music breakup song, from Tammy Wynette’s “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.” to Willie Nelson’s “Little Things,” and “Gaslighter” is almost a whole album of them. All three members of the Chicks have gone through divorce, and Maines sings these deeply autobiographical songs in first person, with no filter.
Maines’ voice sounds positively lonesome on some tracks. So much so, she can cry, as she occasionally does, allowing her voice to crack with raggedly naked emotion in the midst of Antonoff’s production. On “Everyone Loves You,” the Chicks’ update of a Charlotte Lawrence song, Maines’ emotional exhaustion rings through in the opening lines. “I am so tired, I have to tame my mind / Before I get too frustrated,” asserting, “I was not something to play with.” The Chicks make the song their own, turning out a heartbreaking ballad in the form of a tearful reflection. As sparse piano and strings build to a cresendo of sweeping fiddle and viola, Maines’ voice strengthens and ascends through lines like, “It’s my body and it hates you / Why does everybody love you?”
Then there’s “Texas Man,” an uptempo sing-along anthem featuring electric guitar from both St. Vincent and Antonoff, that sings about needing, well, a Texas man. And, retrospective song “My Best Friend’s Wedding,” that revisits the timeline of a love lost, while looking to a bright future. Strayer and Maguire’s harmonies delicately sweep and then soar along lyrics like, “In twenty years I’ll still be younger than you / I’m better off without your gloom and your doom,” accompanied by Strayer’s banjo plucks and another sublime violin-viola solo from Maguire.
Antonoff’s hand can be heard most clearly in tracks like “Julianna Calm Down” and the rhythmically entrancing and subversively empowering “March March,” a politically-driven song thats video component spotlights the recent Black Lives Matter protests. Each track’s performance rises in drama and tension, but often maintains an effective sparseness. Antonoff adds keys and the occasional intricate arrangement, but much of the album is a softer, more determined take on their bluegrass roots. While songs like “Gaslighter” and “Sleep at Night” are more country-pop fare, “Tights On My Boat” is bluegrass noir, and “Hope It’s Something Good” is aching bluegrass with emotionally rending harmonies.
“Set Me Free” closes the record, and is as painful as any breakup tune, with the added weight of the stifling of the artistic voice. “Decency would be for you to sign and release me,” Maines pleads, finalizing an album that speaks truth to power, remarkably so that Pasdar unsuccessfully hoped courts might decide some songs cut too close to reality to pass the ex-couple’s non-disclosure agreement.
“Gaslighter” is a boldly understated returning salvo, with a sense of assuredness and a raw maturity. The Chicks are still master melody makers and they make everything from romantic disillusion to casual sexism painfully catchy. They don’t take away the pain. They make it bearable by exposing old wounds to new salt. They may not tow the Mason-Dixon line anymore, but their deeply rooted musical devotion and flawless three-part harmonies prove these are still the Chicks.
“Gaslighter” is available July 17 on Apple Music.