Dixie Chicks, "Taking the Long Way"
The Dixie Chicks' fortunes changed in an instant. During a 2003 concert in London, lead singer of the Texas group, Natalie Maines, uttered the following sentence: "Just so you know, we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas." A firestorm ensued as country music radio stations dropped the band from their playlists, the women received death threats and the band was publicly criticized by fellow country stars like Toby Keith. "Taking the Long Way," the Chicks' first post-controversy album, sees the band moving away from the country sound that made them stars. The critical reaction has been mostly favorable, with Rolling Stone (4 stars) praising the album for embracing the "depth and fury of classic rock while remaining true to the trio's Texas roots," and Billboard applauding "a surprisingly cohesive mix of country and rock tunes."
While the critics seem to agree on the band's musical direction, there is less consensus on a corresponding shift in lyrical content. The Nashville Tennessean, for one, laments the demise of a more playful Dixie Chicks, criticizing the new batch of songs for being "weighed down in bitter appraisals and somber reckoning." Not surprisingly, the New Yorker thinks the opposite, wondering "why isn't Maines singing about Iraq?"
The ultimate question is whether "Taking the Long Way Home" will match the mega-selling success of the Dixie Chicks' earlier albums. Has the band alienated its fan base by focusing on personal, rather than more universal, concerns? The Austin American-Statesman raises the same question, asking: Will longtime fans "come with the Chicks if the music doesn't directly address their hopes and fears?" Only the charts will tell.
Johnny Cash, "Personal File"
The latest in a seemingly inexhaustible flow of posthumously released material, "Personal Files" is a two-disc collection of solo acoustic performances Johnny Cash recorded between 1973 and 1982. As the New York Times explains, the album yields no surprises: "One wants his private stash to yield curious songs, performances that indicated the dimensions of his humanity, his vast, funky, unapologetic soul. Instead, most of these songs, even his religious originals, are plain and prim."
The album may not shed new light on Cash's artistry, but critics felt that it made up for its non-revelatory nature with a generous helping of intimacy. Allmusic.com (4 stars) marvels at the record as a "portrait so intimate the listener is tempted not to breathe," while giving backhanded praise to Greil Marcus' liner notes, wherein the noted scholar "does his usual 'big-America-via-small-gestures' riff." The Guardian (4 stars) also warmed to the album's informality, likening it to attending "an engaging, intimate Cash concert, and no one else showed up."
"Personal Files" may disappoint listeners fond of the solemn gravitas of the recordings Cash made under the guidance of Rick Rubin. But fans attracted to that work might do well to heed the advice of the Green Man Review, which says the album is a simple wonder that lets "you feel close to the man as he quietly sings some of his favorites, not for a buck, or for the applause, but just because he loved to sing." Sounds fine by me.
-- David Marchese