As a Dixie Chicks historian, I take anything from Natalie Maines, or any of the Chicks for that matter, seriously. I bought the Erwin sisters' release as The Courtyard Hounds in 2010, and attempted to soften blows when its mediocre material received mediocre reviews.
We owe them that airbag as a mea culpa for so selfishly deserting them 10 years ago. But that guilt is conflicting when listening to Mother, Maines’ first solo album and musical release in seven years. This long-awaited return was hopefully going to be the kind of Grammy gold she put out years ago, because what better kiss-off to all of the ignorant hillbillies who took her off the radio than that? And who’s to say it won’t be, but it certainly isn’t the version of Maines that we’ve all been missing.
Ultimately Mother is the prettiest sounding identity crisis that you’ve ever heard. Not to say that Maines doesn’t know who she is as a musician, but she’s definitely trying to find out who she is outside of country, and in order to do that has put out a sampler of rock covers. The opening track “Without You” is a bit of a sting to any DC fan, seeing as the Chicks had a quaking ballad of the same title. But on Mother’s version, and Eddie Vedder cover, the mimicking of the acoustic and electric guitars, heavily melodic instrumental breakdowns and ethereal background vocals is reminiscent of the alt rock of the early aughts.
Having been produced by Ben Harper, that’s not surprising. Harper is a surprising choice though. With her new edgy haircut, head banging, and Interview With a Vampire jewelry, it seems as though Maines is attempting a harder image, and Harper isn’t necessarily the first person you think of when you think of rock n’ roll. He himself is a very talented musician, and more power to him for facilitating a Natalie Maines comeback, but the approach is a little hokey and lackluster at points. Ultimately it seems as though Harper was looking for an excuse to eschew his black John Mayer shtick to put on a wide-brimmed hat and play a steal guitar. And boy do we wish that steal guitar was a crying pedal steal, but you can make wishes all day if you want to.
The finished product is what’s most important, and there are a lot of other influences on the album. Maines gives Mother’s Roger Waters-penned title track a Melanie Safka vibe, and that kind of politically-charged-songstress-of-the-people thing suits Maines as much as her cowboy boots used to. Her cover of Patty Griffin’s “Silver Bell” is a little overly polished. Aside from some righteous vocal slides, it’s a pretty vanilla rendition. There isn’t much to say about her cover of Jeff Buckley’s “Lover You Should Have Come Over,” because it’s a flawless song to include on any album. Maines does it justice, and that’s pretty much all you can do with a song like that.
The two gems of the album say a lot about where Maines has been. The first, her cover of the Jayhawks’ “I’d Run Away” has a welcomed bit of twang, and it takes the song to a new, delightful place. The second is her one nod to the Dixie Chicks, “Come Cryin’ To Me,” co-written by her old band mates. The song has the same kind of ballsy lead vocal that the DC catalog boasts, and chugs along with a roots rock guitar line and choral harmony.
In my opinion, that’s proof that Maines’ real talent shines most on songs with 90s purity, where she can lead with charged vocals and country instincts. That isn’t to say that Maines can’t make a comfortable home for herself in rock music, but what will really make her a power player in the genre is evolving her honky tonk tendencies into a new sound, rather than doing away with them all together.