There’s a poignant scene in Shut Up and Sing, the 2006 documentary on the Dixie Chicks, in which Emily Robison and Martie McGuire openly muse about their fear that their erstwhile country band is being pulled into rock music, something which they feel is an uneasy fit for their fiddles and mandolins. They’ve hooked up with veteran rock and hip-hop producer Rick Rubin, have begun to work with songwriters like Gary Louris and Sheryl Crowe, and (perhaps most alarming of all) their lead singer, the brash and unstoppable force that is Natalie Maines, seems to fit this new sound like a glove. While listening to some tape of their day’s work, they debate the reasons why good bands so often break up, and this insecurity comes to the fore: “Well, he could go solo. That’s the thing a lead singer could hang over the band’s head,” McGuire concludes. And, amazingly, Maines doesn’t respond; she just sits there with a faraway look in her eyes.
Was Mother the record Natalie Maines was imagining in that moment? Whatever the case, now we have it, and for the most part, this is a good thing. But it is so hard not to see this as a grand missed opportunity. As a straight-ahead rock album, Mother eschews country tropes almost entirely, allowing Maines the space to explore, to try on new sounds. New, to her, that is. There is little about this record that feels fresh in any wider sense, or that feels like a musical statement beyond the fairly un-world-shaking “Natalie Maines can rock!” which, let’s face it, who would find surprising? Maines has, through four excellent records with her band, proven herself to be an elite singer, an indomitable performer, and among the most electrifyingly fearless big-name artists in the industry. So, why does this album slip more than once into material and performances that feel like walkthroughs, like afterthoughts?
Mother opens with an exciting one-two-three combination. First is the terrific Eddie Vedder-penned “Without You”, an intimate pop song boasting an endlessly catchy chorus. This is followed by the thrilling jolt of a cover of “Mother” (Pink Floyd’s famous conflation of the Oedipal complex with the horrors of rock stardom), featuring a vocal reading which feels loving in places where Waters’ original vocal was just sneering (although I am not sure if this is a good thing or not). The record then delivers a total knockout with veteran songwriter Dan Wilson’s lovely ode to day-seizing that is “Free Life”, a characteristically spot-on bit of songcraft which Maines inhabits completely.
All the more baffling, then, that Mother follows this up with a deeply lame bit of throwaway rock on “Silver Bell” by the usually reliable Patty Griffin. Sure, Natalie Maines can rock, but that doesn’t mean she has to sing a formulaic “rock” song to prove it. What’s worse is that she goes back to this well again a few songs later, on the pretty execrable “Trained” (one of a pair of songs by co-producer Ben Harper), a bit of uninspired and formulaic arena “rock” that feels badly out of place on an album otherwise full of strong writing.
And what strong writing. From a vibrant interpretation of the Jayhawks’ classic singalong “I’d Run Away” to the terrific mid-tempo Petty-esque rock of “Come Crying to Me” (a Dixie Chicks and Gary Louris co-write that didn’t make it onto Taking the Long Way) to the majesty of the closing barnburner “Take it on Faith”, these songs allow Maines to showcase her range, her impressive ability to construct mood with a few well-placed notes, her uncanny knack for delivering a wealth of emotional information without over-playing her hand.
The album is at its strongest when, as on its centerpiece cover of Jeff Buckley’s otherworldy “Lover You Should’ve Come Over”, Maines’ extraordinary vocals are allowed to run freely over material that is up to her power. This take on what I would have told you was an un-coverable song – so difficult to try to re-invent a masterpiece, and usually such folly – is so moving, so deeply realized, so gut-punchingly raw, I actually found myself lying down by the time it was over on my first time through.
My god, I thought, she can do anything.