Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

Let’s Hear It for the Dixie Chicks

Among the cool bands we’ve never given a shout out to here before: the Dixie Chicks. Yeah, you heard that right, the Dixie Chicks. Texas may have a reputation as a troglodyte state but it’s given birth to plenty of smart, nonconformist women, among them Natalie Maines, Emily Robison and Martie Maguire. When they first came out back in the 90s, the Dixie Chicks were viewed as sort of the Go-Go’s of country music, which is more than a little off the mark – the Chicks may have started out as a bluegrass band, but by the time they achieved nationwide fame, they’d had most of the country squeezed out of them. And quality musicianship by women in Americana roots music is a hundred-year-old tradition. But they left a mark. Getting caught standing up to Bush regime repression won them a mainstream audience at the price of the lunatic fringe of their “country” crowd: if not for Maines’ offhand comment about being embarrassed that George W. Bush considered himself a fellow Texan, they probably wouldn’t have reached much more than cult status north of the Mason-Dixon line. The Berklee-trained Maines remains one of the most influential singers of her time, and by the end of the road they were writing most of their own songs, something unthinkable in millennial corporate Nashville. The new anthology, The Essential Dixie Chicks (up at itunes and all the usual spots) does justice to the women who somewhat unexpectedly became one of the very last genuinely good top 40 bands.

The double-cd compilation has most of their best stuff from their post-1998 era (they independently released a handful of highly regarded albums before then); for those who missed them the first time around, it’s as good as any way to get to know them. Interestingly, the sequence of tracks looks at their career in reverse, starting out with the bristling Not Ready to Make Nice, Maines’ response to the tea party crowd in the wake of her anti-Bush comments (which she’s vaccillated about since then). Their feminism is all the more genuine, considering how mundanely they expressed it: women refusing to assume traditional roles, keep sweet or subsume their dreams in order to get a guy. At their best, their sarcastic response to the conformity around them is pure punk rock, perfectly capsulized in the snarling Texas shuffle Lubbock or Leave It, where there are “more churches than trees.” Even before the Iraq war, they took an antiwar stance, more than alluded to here, notably on Traveling Soldier, which was a sizeable hit. The bitterness of the post-Top of the World stuff is visceral; barn-burners like Long Time Gone still resonate good vibes even if they’re basically pop songs with rustic instrumentation, and the blistering bluegrass breakdown White Trash Wedding shows they could still play that stuff if they wanted to. And Earl’s here too: ironically, it was that exuberantly silly murder ballad that established their cred with fans who’d missed their earlier, more traditionalist incarnation. The band’s future isn’t clear, although sisters Robison and Maguire continue as the Court Yard Hounds. If this is it, this retrospective sends them out with the respect they deserve.

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November 3, 2010 Posted by | country music, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews, rock music | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Concert Review: Tift Merritt at Stuyvesant High School Auditorium, NYC 7/1/09

You heard it here first: Tift Merritt is the future of American pop music. What she sings isn’t particularly edgy, but it’s not stupid. Last night the North Carolina-bred songwriter made fun of the promoters who’d moved her scheduled show at Rockefeller Park indoors even as the sky was clearing. She was spooked by the prospect of playing in a high school: “Not a good time,” she recalled, practically shuddering. Which made sense. As catchy and warmly accessible as her songs are, there’s a welcome intelligence in her writing, and her voice is a dead giveaway. Her songs come across as something of the missing link between Sheryl Crow and Aimee Mann (Merritt loves those major/minor changes that Mann works so masterfully). Vocally, Linda Thompson is the obvious comparison. Merritt’s recorded work plays up her stoic resignation and haunting sense of nuance, her voice sometimes dropping off the table for dramatic effect much in the style of  the legendary Britfolk chanteuse; last night she also showed off a grit and a liveliness that doesn’t always cut through in the studio.

Playing solo, alternating between acoustic guitar and electric piano (and electric guitar on one song), she won over a tough crowd with casual charm and one memorable tune after the next. As Roscoe Ambel famously said, if a song sounds good at its barest, stripped down to just guitar and voice, it’ll sound great with a band. Much of what she played could have been ecstatically fun with a good crew behind her – you know how much musicians love a smart, intuitive tune. Using just your typical building-block major and minor chords, she introduced three new songs along with several from her most recent studio cd Another Country. Of the new ones, the best was a fast yet pensive backbeat-driven number exploring the theme of finally figuring out to what to do once you’ve gotten what you want after years of searching high and low. Of the less brand-new songs, Broken, a vivid, bitterly soaring anthem evoking the struggles of her early days in music, packed a punch as did Keep You Happy, with its crescendoing chorus and realization that tying your happiness to another person’s is bound to drag you down there with them. Merritt also impressed with her gospel-tinged piano work on a handful of ballads as well as a bouncy yet somewhat eerie soul-inflected number. She even went up the scale to end one of them with a fun Floyd Cramer flourish. 

In a level playing field without the now-flatlining major labels, Merritt’s success gives hope to a new generation of writers creating accessible yet intelligent pop music, Ward White, Kirsten Williams, Nicholas Howard and Sharon Goldman among legions of others. Merritt is based in New York now, so we ought to see more of her in the months to come which promises to be a treat considering what a songwriting roll she’s on right now.

July 2, 2009 Posted by | Live Events, Music, music, concert, New York City, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments