While the Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines decides whether she wants to record again, the other two-thirds of the platinum trio, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, have crafted a sweet, understated set under their new moniker Court Yard Hounds that grows more appealing with each repeat listening.
Maines possesses a powerhouse voice that matches her sparkplug personality and tends to dwarf everything around it. Therefore, the contributions of Robison and Maguire--who started the Dixie Chicks without Maines, thank you very much—were often overshadowed by Maines once she joined the group. To be sure, Robison’s voice, which is reminiscent of Shawn Colvin, has none of the distinctiveness of Maines’ colossal pipes, but it has its own subtle charm, including a vulnerability often missing from Maines’ vocals, especially on the wistful “Fairytale” or the plaintive “Graceful.”
Here, on the siblings’ self-titled debut, their talents shine, including their fine playing. Much of the records fits squarely into the sweet spot that country radio is embracing: pop country that builds upon the ‘70s soft rock of such artists as the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Jackson Browne (just try listening to the infectious, easy-going “The Coast” and not think of early ‘70s JB) and extends straight through the Jayhawks and Wilco. Its building blocks are acoustic guitars, strong melodies and gorgeous harmonies. Throw in smart, tasteful instrumentation, especially on fiddle and guitar, and you’ve got an album with legs. Nothing ever sounds forced and the production is polished and professional without ever sounding slick.
Highlights include “Nothing New Under the Sun,” whose mid-song tempo change recalls the Beatles; while the folk-infused “See You in the Spring,” a duet with Jakob Dylan, is a lovely plea to not give up before love can be renewed.
But the girls can kick it up as well. “Ain’t No Son” is a biting, bitter banjo-spiced rave-up about a gay boy who comes out to his unaccepting father. While the lyrics may go over people’s heads, the sheer musicality of the track, with its strident fiddle and guitar solos, are sure to make it a concert highlight.
In interviews, Robison had admitted that many of the lyrics are about her divorce from Charlie Robison. That knowledge makes many of the songs such as the album closing tracks, “It Didn’t Make a Sound” and “Fear of Wasted Talent,” all the more poignant. Robison makes heartbreak sound way more attractive than it should, especially with the barrelhouse piano playing and handclaps on “It Didn’t Make a Sound” belying the devastation within.
The Dixie Chicks are reuniting to tour with the Eagles this summer, so here's hoping that Maines feels inspired enough to go back into the studio sometime soon, but Court Yard Hounds doesn't have to feel like a side project at all. These hounds can definitely hunt.