The strange world of country music largely remains a foreign land to British ears. Sure, mammoth, one off events – step forward Country 2 Country – bolster the sound’s impact on these shores, but that dent pales in comparison to the Grand Canyon like hole country has carved for itself in the American mainstream.
Take The Chicks. Famously ostracised following their protest against the Iraq War, those headlines bely the astonishing success the group had previously enjoyed – they’ve sold more than 30 million albums, all told, and are part of a rare category of artist to clock up multiple (multiple!) Diamond rated releases.
Yet new album ‘Gaslighter’ has been a long time coming. The band’s first in 14 years, it’s release hasn’t exactly been plain-sailing. A recent appearance alongside Taylor Swift put them back in the spotlight where they belong, before COVID derailed their release strategy, and Black Lives Matter forced a re-think of their Dixie-laden moniker.
Now freshly shorn as The Chicks, ‘Gaslighter’ is an album that, in spite of these many and varied obstacles, remains furiously easy on the ear. Gilded country pop as only Natalie Maines, Emily Stayer, and Martie Maguire can provide, it’s a sign that the Texas group retain something special that their copyists can only dream about reaching.
Perhaps it’s the essence of country-pop itself. Musicians who came up the hard way – literally busking on the streets – their knowledge of country as an art form enriches the material on ‘Gaslighter’, while glossy producer from Jack Antonoff – a close friend of the group, famed for his work with Taylor Swift – brings those songs sharply into pop focus.
Just look at the title track. ‘Gaslighter’ as a term may be something incredibly modern, but it’s tale of a woman trapped in a toxic marriage, who then seizes her independence, is the stuff of Nashville lore.
Largely propelled by Natalie Maines’ real-life divorce, the album treads a path between the traditional and the personal - ‘Hope It’s Something Good’ is a pensive, acoustic affair about the demise of a relationship, while ‘Julianna Calm Down’ surges towards a rattling, stetson flinging romp. ‘My Best Friend’s Weddings’ - the plural is entirely intentional – is led forwards by some superb lyrical twists, the word play pensive and poignant in places.
‘For Her’ has a neat twilight feel, reminiscent of some mythical South West night amid its Fender Rhodes chords, while ‘Texas Man’ finds The Chicks reaching back for their roots.
A straight-talking delight, ‘Gaslighter’ refuses to radically overhaul The Chicks’ sound, and that’s ultimately why it’s so successful. Retaining that fine balance between country and pop, it allows the three-piece space to be true to themselves, ably building on their storied catalogue.
Words: Robin Murray
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