CD: Dixie Chicks, Taking the Long Way

(Sony)

The rightwing US magazine National Review recently published a list of the 50 top conservative rock songs. "The result is of course arbitrary," noted its author, John J Miller. You can say that again: it dismisses authorial intention in a manner that would have impressed Derrida. It features the Clash, the Sex Pistols' Bodies - about which John Lydon recently remarked, "If you construe that as being anti-abortion, you're a silly cunt" - and, most perplexing of all, Iron Maiden's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.

Any songwriter who doesn't actively cheerlead for Stalinism is held to be a neo-con, anyone who mentions Arabs is automatically assumed to want to bomb them off the face of the earth. The hitherto-unnoticed rightwing sympathies of the Beatles' Revolution are uncovered by the simple expedient of misquoting the lyrics. It seems a shame that he stopped at 50, thus depriving readers of the opportunity to learn how Morrissey's Margaret on the Guillotine is actually a demand for the reintroduction of the death penalty, the Dead Kennedys' Kill the Poor backs the Bush administration's policy on Hurricane Katrina and how close analysis of Billy Bragg's version of The Internationale reveals it to be a hearty endorsement of the current US regime.

If nothing else, Miller's list proves that these are tough times for the kind of person who takes to the internet and announces that he will never again listen to any artist who criticises Bush. The CD bonfire in the garden must be burning like the eternal flame, while they subsist off a meagre diet consisting entirely of redneck country and dim rap-metaller Kid Rock. How different it was three years ago, when commentators bemoaned the lack of musical opposition to the coming Iraq war and Dixie Chicks vocalist Natalie Maines told a London audience she was "ashamed" of the US. Scarcely a voice seemed raised in Maines' support, as her band's CDs were bulldozed and country singer Toby Keith began performing before a backdrop depicting her with Saddam Hussein.

Maines' remark hangs heavy over the Dixie Chicks' seventh album. It is the subject of opener Long Way Around, single Not Ready to Make Nice, Lubbock Or Leave It, So Hard and the closing I Hope. It seeps into Easy Silence, Favorite Year and Baby Hold On, all ostensibly love songs, in which Maines invariably depicts her amorata providing shelter from the accusations, wondering if things can ever be the same etc. It looms over Everybody Knows, which is supposed to be about the psychology of celebrity, but ends up being more about the psychology of one nameless celebrity who finds themselves suffering opprobrium after making an offhand remark about the US president. The listener ends up in an uncomfortably conflicted state of mind.

What happened to Maines was ghastly; it's something about which she has every right to vent her spleen. Even so, you start wondering if she could write a song about going to the bathroom without mentioning how the locked cubicle feels like a sanctuary from the lies and the hatred and how the softness of Charmin Ultra is so unlike the harshness of the rightwing media.

It might help if the music on Taking the Long Way matched her fury, but, unfortunately, that only happens twice. The chorus of Not Ready to Make Nice rattles vengefully along, while Lubbock or Leave It's grinding guitar riff and frantic banjo plucking sounds powerful enough to distract you from the song's view of musical history, which seems as skewed as that of John J Miller. "I hear they hate me now, just like they hated you," sings Maines, comparing herself to Lubbock's most famous son, Buddy Holly. This seems an odd parallel to draw: Holly was hardly known for his political beliefs, and has thus far failed to express any contentious views on George Bush or the Iraq war, on account of being dead for 47 years.

Elsewhere, big-name collaborators seem to have flocked to the Dixie Chicks - Rick Rubin produces, Red Hot Chili Peppers' drummer Chad Smith guests and Sheryl Crow, the Jayhawks' Gary Louris and chart-busting songwriter-for-hire Linda Perry all co-write. The results abandon predecessor Home's bluegrass influences for a buffed, vaguely country-ish AOR. Two fingers to the Nashville reactionaries who were among Maines' fiercest critics, perhaps, but the gloss blunts the songs' anger. You might have forgiven its anodyne sound a few years back, when a mainstream US pop album packed full of Bush-baiting songs would have seemed remarkable and unique. But today, everyone's at it. Ironically, just as they have become a liberal cause célèbre, the Dixie Chicks sound more conservative than ever. Given how flexible his definition of that word seems, perhaps John J Miller should find room in his chart for them.

Contributor

Alexis Petridis

The GuardianTramp

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