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Dour Dixie Chicks ‘Taking the Long Way’ back

Trio's playfulness gives way to somber reckoning on new album
/ Source: The Associated Press

The Dixie Chicks return from a period of hibernation by flashing anger and a more grown-up, rock-influenced sound on the "Taking the Long Way," their first studio album since 2002's Grammy-winning "Home" and the controversy that erupted after singer Natalie Maines criticized the president during a London concert in March of 2003.

The righteousness might have been expected; after all, the Texas trio built their reputation with bold lyrics and an uncompromising attitude and musicality. The change in direction isn't a surprise, either; the Chicks have always been adventurous, and besides, after being rejected by country radio and booed at country music award shows, the band announced it would record in Los Angeles with renowned rock producer Rick Rubin and a host of L.A. rock stalwarts.

But what isn't expected is how dour they sound. In the past, Maines and her bandmates, sisters Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, used cheeky humor and playful sense of abandon to address everything from leaving home to abusive husbands to sexual freedom. Now their songs are weighed down in bitter appraisals and somber reckoning.

At times, they rock harder than ever, especially on the ferocious "Lubbock or Leave It," a two-barreled blast at small-town hypocrisy and narrow-mindedness titled after Maines' hometown. They also occasionally prove as masterful at injecting a personal Texas spin into melodic rock as they were at enlivening modern country music in the past. The new "Voice Inside My Head," in particular, is a rousingly effective pop song powered by Maines' soaring voice and the harmonies and instrumental talents of Maguire and Robison.

But even with all the top-notch help — including Gary Louris of the Jayhawks, Dan Wilson of Semisonic, and Mike Campbell and Benmont Tench of Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers — the Chicks don't quite raise the kind of ruckus that made them such a force to be reckoned with in the past.— Michael McCall

"Killa Season," Cam'ronCam'ron's latest album attempts to live up to the mounting hype swirling around the Harlem rapper and his camp, most blatantly due to the Jay-Z diss track "You Got It," appearing on "Killa Season" as "You Gotta Love It."

And at times the Diplomat General seems up to it.

"You Gotta Love It" wins on ambition alone. It takes serious mettle to challenge the man some consider to be the greatest living rapper. Cam unleashes a fusillade of jibes, including "Your publishing should go to Miss Wallace," a dig at Jay's penchant for quoting lines from his late friend, the Notorious B.I.G.

Problem is Jigga is 30-plus (or 40-plus according to Killa), doesn't wear jerseys anymore and hasn't been spotted in Jordans recently. And one-way battles are no fun.

The album is being released along with a straight-to-DVD film of the same name, in which Cam'ron plays a Harlem drug hustler sharing an uncanny resemblance to the cat that shows up on the CD.

He moves drugs (selling "Heavy D."); pimps ("then she moved to Canada/ now she live in Harlem/ you can say I manage her); rocks ice (my wrist so bright look like Sunny Delight) and talks murder (one chorus is actually "more killin killin/ more killin killin for Killa Killa)."

Two tracks stand out from the otherwise straight hustle and flow: One in terms of beats, the other rhymes.

"Leave You Alone" juts against almost everything else here: a Kanye-inspired, sped-Etta James sample is distorted into what sounds like a looped kettle-whistle, as tumbling drums rumble beneath. The Blackout Movement production is also infused with metronomic chanting that lend the track a futuristic but tribal feel.

Contentwise, "I.B.S." is definitely the most offbeat, as Cam details his bout with Irritable Bowel Syndrome ("the pain was no comparison — throwing up in public — it was embarrassin'") exercising a welcome vulnerability.

A few of these joints miss pretty badly ("Get Ya Gun" is a little disturbing) but for the most part, Cam is still killing it with his signature brand of over-the-top braggadocio, unmatched in this arena _ at the very least, by all "active" rappers.— Jake O'Connell

"Stand Still, Look Pretty," The WreckersThree years after her second solo album, one-time teen singer-songwriter Michelle Branch has joined with her former backup singer Jessica Harp to create a modern pop-country duo, The Wreckers.

The melodic, harmony-rich sound crosses the Dixie Chicks and Sheryl Crow for a smart, roots-based sound built around the duos well-written tunes.

Branch was 17 when she released her first hit, "Everywhere." Five years later, shes still concentrating on songs about identity, emotional entanglements and making it clear on why shes leaving a relationship or what its going to take to get her to stay.

Pairing with Harp, who had pursued a solo country career until Branch offered to form a duo, The Wreckers merge the traditional and contemporary by seamlessly blending bluegrass instruments like fiddles, mandolins and acoustic guitars with gently rockin'accents of slide guitar and pulsing rhythms.

Songs like "Leave the Pieces," "The Good Kind" and the title cut deal, not surprisingly, with young women frustrated by lovers and those who would stereotype them or dismiss their ambitions or emotions. Branchs husky voice is effectively expressive, and the harmonies are richly beautiful.

Hopefully, The Wreckers subtle but undeniable strengths will be powerful to tear down walls between country and pop.— Michael McCall