If the Dixie Chicks have a philosophy, it probably runs along the lines of, "If it ain't broke, don't fix it."
And who could blame them? Considering that the trio's 1998 debut, "Wide Open Spaces," has sold some 6 million copies, the Chicks would have to be crazy to want a musical make-over -- especially when so few groups these days are able to put such a pop-friendly shine on mainstream country music.
Indeed, the Dixie Chicks became so popular outside the traditional country market that the group even ended up as featured performers on many dates of this summer's Lilith Fair.
At the same time, the Dixie Chicks aren't so foolish as to think that people wanting a new album would settle for a obvious copy of the last one. So even though their sophomore release, "Fly" (Monument 69678, arriving in stores today), is blessed with many of the same strengths as the group's debut, it actively tweaks the group's sound and image, offering more in the way of guts and grit.
They've upped the attitude, for starters. Where the first album showed the Chicks being alternately coy and sassy, "Fly" finds them acting downright devilish.
On "Sin Wagon," for instance, singer Natalie Maines boasts that she plans to "do a little mattress dancing" ("That's right, I said 'mattress dancing,' " she repeats, as if reveling in the naughtiness) and that, when she is called to account before the Pearly Gates, she'll have "one hell of a story."
Then there's "Goodbye Earl," the story of how Wanda and her best girlfriend, Marianne, band together to deal with her abusive ex-husband, Earl. Their solution is simple: They kill him and discover to their endless joy that Earl was "a missing person who nobody missed at all." So unlike the heroines of "Thelma & Louise," who paid for their sins by driving off a cliff, Marianne and Wanda open a roadside stand and live happily ever after.
Gotta love that neo-feminism, huh, fellas?
It's worth noting, though, that while "Sin Wagon" was co-written by two of the Chicks, "Goodbye Earl" is the work of one Dennis Linde, who is not a chick at all. Then again, it's doubtful that Dixie Chicks fans expect the same sort of confessional honesty found on Alanis Morissette albums.
This is country music, after all, and what a singer does with a song is far more important than whether or not he or she happened to write it. In that sense, the lusty enthusiasm Maines imbues upon "Sin Wagon" and "Goodbye Earl" perfectly suits the Chicks' spunky semi-feminism. As she plays it, there's no need to seem threatening when everybody can sing along and have fun. (Forget riot grrls -- America wants farm grrls!)
Even better, the stomping insistence of the instrumental arrangements gives the music the same rhythmic impact as rock and roll, while leaving plenty of room for the classic country licks offered for stylistic reassurance.
So never mind that the bass line and B-3 organ parts that kick off "Hole In My Head" would have sounded as at home on an old Deep Purple album; once the song kicks into gear, those elements are crowded out by Seidel's sawing fiddle and (especially) Emily Robison's whining dobro.
There's also a classic country side to the Chicks, as exemplified in "Cowboy Take Me Away" and the honky-tonk-style "Hello Mr. Heartache." But those songs don't suit the raw power of Maines' voice quite as well as up-tempo tunes.
Perhaps the most intriguing element on "Fly" is the Irish flavor filtered into the matrimonially-minded "Ready to Run" (which also appears on the soundtrack to "Runaway Bride").
Not only does the tune make nice use of Seidel and Robison's fiddle and banjo, but it folds Maines' voice into the harmonies more gently than on other tracks.
It'd be nice to hear the Chicks take their music a little more in that direction next time around. Who knows -- maybe they can work up a peppy little Celtic murder ballad for their third album...
"Fly" (Monument 69678)
Sun score: ** 1/2