Record Reviews 

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Taking the Long Way

Dixie Chicks

(Columbia)

The Dixie Chicks come back

dark and defiant.

Attacking the president of the United States from a London stage three years ago was not a heroic act. Natalie Maines' comments were too glib and pandering for that. The Dixie Chicks emerged heroic in the aftermath, but not as artists -- as citizens.

As Maines admits in the notes to her band's new album, Taking the Long Way, the Dixie Chicks have typically written (okay, more like "sung" or "performed") songs about other people. My favorite arena-rock band, the Chicks used to speak for a mass audience, an entire demographic and then some. It was thrilling to watch the band pull their audience through the fire with them, the accidental politics of hits such as "Ready To Run" or "Wide Open Spaces" and the intentional button-pushing of "Long Time Gone" or "Goodbye Earl" gaining resonance as the band played an unexpectedly defiant role in a very public drama.

On Taking the Long Way, the band speaks only for themselves and not just about "the incident," as Maines referred to it in concert, but about their personal lives as well. It's a record that probably had to be made, but, as artists, it doesn't suit them.

Instead of interpreting high-level country songcraft, they co-write every song with a gaggle of dullish ringer collaborators -- most prominently, Midwesterners Gary Louris (Jayhawks) and Dan Wilson (Semisonic). The serious tone has resulted in an orchestral shift that robs sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire of their bluegrass-bred zip, though their harmony is sharper and sweeter than ever.

There are highlights here: The bitter, emotional single "Not Ready To Make Nice" is pop-song psychodrama on a par with "Cry Me a River." "The Long Way Around" is a more pointed update of "Wide Open Spaces" that's general enough to let listeners find their own place in it. And "Lubbock or Leave It" is a useful counterpoint to country music's recent string of small-town pride anthems.

But this is at heart a pop band, and they're at their best when they sound that way. When they unite chart-pop sunniness with rootsy musicality and matter-of-fact feminism, they bring more goodness to the world than with MoveOn.org message music or a sound as dark as their eye shadow. Of course, they've got a right to be hostile. They have been persecuted. -- Chris Herrington

Grade: B

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At War With the Mystics

The Flaming Lips

(Warner Bros.)

On the exasperatingly uneven At War With the Mystics, Wayne Coyne exchanges his usual warm and fuzzy goodwill for a Muppets-y dissent that sounds way out of character. His political frustration is legitimate, but it leads to the simplistic philosophy on the leadoff track "The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song," its eccentricities grating instead of charming. All the predictable psychedelic elements weigh down tracks like "The Sound of Failure" and "Vein of Stars," sinking the album into a muddle before it can even build momentum. Which is too bad, because there are moments that reveal the band's unique sense of wonder and musical inventiveness. "Free Radicals" stops and starts manically; "The W.A.N.D." unleashes a fury of messy guitars; and "Mr. Ambulance Driver" sounds as sad/happy as anything they've done.

-- Stephen Deusner

Grade: B-

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3121

Prince

(Universal)

Soon after the Purple Rain-fueled Brinks truck backed up to Prince's house, the reclusive genius began a series of musical conversations with himself. Brilliant conversations, but at times too insular, inconsistent, or plain weird. 3121, "produced, arranged, composed and per4med" by Prince, is high-gloss funk and R&B with bright splashes of His High Purpleness' searing guitar. There's an oppressive feeling of a studio mad scientist at work that dominates much of this record. (The title track, a giddy sci-fi corker, is an exception.) "The Fury" is all set to bust out, but Prince buries his guitar in more synth-heavy flourishes. But then -- suddenly -- an acoustic guitar walks in, Prince abandons his high register, and "The Word" leaps off the record. It's the most satisfying, ecstatic song about faith since, well, "The Cross," off Sign O' the Times. ("Love") -- Werner Trieschmann

Grade: B+

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