If you were to play a word association game with me, and said “Dixie Chicks”, my response would be “controversy”. It seems like the Dixie Chicks are a firebrand for doing provocative things, the most memorable being dissing former US president George W. Bush and the then-looming war in Iraq in concert, a move that made many a Red State fan tear up their posters and burn their albums in disbelief. The group also famously posed nude in Entertainment Weekly, and, of course, have a little matter of having a song in their backcatalogue called “Goodbye Earl”, which I find the most problematic of all of things they’ve done, because it’s about the premeditated murder of an abusive husband. Granted, I’m not a fan of Chris Brown-esque domestic violence, but calling for the execution of a man, considering that yours truly is one, is hardly the way to go about solving a particularly perplexing problem. (There’s a rather wide chasm between hitting someone and killing someone, in my opinion.) So, chances of you liking Court Yard Hounds boils down to how much you like the Dixie Chicks, as Court Yard Hounds is essentially the Dixie Chicks save for lead singer Natalie Maines: it’s the product of sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. Though it must be said that while the Dixie Chicks are on a recording hiatus, they still perform live in concert occasionally (they have a few scattered live dates in Canada this month). Still, an album like Amelita is meant to hold you over.
However, Court Yard Hounds are hardly notorious, at least in sound. If the Eagles approached country music from the rock side of the fence, then Court Yard Hounds approach rock music from the country-pop side of the tracks. Amelita, their second album, is full of hooky crossover tracks that are bound to be pleasing to those who enjoy good, solid pop music, and does nothing else to light a fire in terms of innovation. Amelita is, thus, one of those “pleasant” albums that don’t shock, but allow the listener to ease into a mode of relaxation. And that may not be a bad thing, but how much you dig Amelita is dependent on how much you enjoy mainstream country-pop music. For one thing, Maguire and Robison are hardly bonafide poets in their lyricism. They shoot for irony, but come crashing down to earth: lead single “Sunshine” offers the baffling chorus, “Hey, don’t rain on my parade / And kill a perfect day wasting my time / Hey, you always find a way to bring me down when I feel fine … / We call you Sunshine.” Elsewhere, the sisters trade in outright cliché: “When life gets you down / Whatcha gonna do? / Are you gonna stick your head in the sand? / Are you gonna turn and run, just like that? / Are you gonna take a fall or stand today?” So, yeah, the Griffin Poetry Prize doesn’t exactly await Court Yard Hounds anytime soon.
However, there are twists and turns to the music of Amelita: “Guy Like You” has the same jazz-folksy vibe as Rickie Lee Jones’ classic “Chuck E.’s In Love”. “Rock All Night” has a barroom slink to it that will get your toe tapping. And there are flashes of bluegrass, such as on “Phoebe”, that harkens back to the Dixie Chicks’ original sound. But speaking of “Phoebe”, you can get the whiff of the band shooting for a more rock-based audience: I’ll be damned if the song doesn’t just simply take off in its final section with some careening fiddle and thrashing guitars. The album jettisons between this approach and offering soft, easy-listening ballads: “Phoebe” is followed by the lilting “Divided”. And then followed after that by “Gets You Down”. And then followed not long after that by “The Road You Take”. If there’s anything that the Court Yard Hounds really love and depend upon as a crutch, it is the earnest slow song. Not that this is a bad thing, but you might find yourself enjoying Amelita best when the sisters are whooping it up.
Amelita is said to be a fun and more hopeful album, now that Robison has gotten her 2008 divorce more or less out of her system. That’s true to an extent, and the record is one that sounds like two people in a more famous band just fiddling around. Ultimately, Amelita does what it does fairly well: as middle-of-the-road country pop albums go, there’s nothing here that’s particularly egregious or baffling – save for some of those banal lyrics. Put another way, and perhaps this will sound like a backhanded compliment, if anything off Amelita came on a commercial radio station while I was driving on the open road (probably the one chance to hear the radio I’d get as reception is rather poor in my apartment), I probably wouldn’t turn the station to something else on the dial. So Amelita is best for those wanting a new Dixie Chicks record: this will tide you over until the trio decides to head back to the recording studio. However, if it were to turn out that the Dixie Chicks didn’t record another note of music, Amelita proves that the Court Yard Hounds could keep their own and do fairly well as a group, at least as a musical entity, never mind the fact that the last Court Yard Hounds album only went Gold whereas Dixie Chicks albums tend to go Multi-Platinum. So, basically, yeah, how much you love Amelita all depends on how much you like the Dixie Chicks, and how you feel about two of the three band members recording something that sounds fairly in step with the band that they made their name. In other words, there’s nothing truly “controversial” to be had here. Amelita is pretty straightforward. And you just might like that, which is nothing to be ashamed of.