Gaslighter

The Chicks

Columbia, 2020

http://thechicks.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 07/28/2020

The Police may have made an entire album about synchronicity, but it took a different headstrong trio to really put that conceit into practice.

The most amazing thing about Gaslighter is that the songs were mostly written two years ago, and recorded in 2018 and 2019, for a planned May release that was subsequently delayed to July. This is startling to learn because so much of the album feels wired to this very specific moment, from the personal-yet-topical anthems “Gaslighter” and “How Do You Sleep At Night?”, to songs about loneliness and longing (“Texas Man,” “Hope It’s Something Good”), and especially to the stirring protest anthem “March March,” whose recent video incorporates footage from this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests even though the song itself was written two years ago. The album’s overarching themes of bouncing back from betrayal and reasserting independence and control over your own life feel very much of this moment as well.

Before we get to the album, though, a few words about the group’s name change, which honestly feels like a much smaller deal to longtime fans like me than to a certain breed of culture warrior. The band has never pretended to represent the old South in any way; they named the group after the Little Feat song “Dixie Chicken.” The fact that they’ve chosen this moment to jettison “Dixie”—something they say they’ve talked about doing for some time—just reflects the times we’re living in. And while there’s been a smattering of faux outrage from observers calling them out for standing by the retrograde term “Chicks,” to this listener it feels very much akin to the LBGTQ’s community reclamation of the word “queer”; Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer represent the epitome of the strong, smart, independent woman who really doesn’t give a shit what anyone else thinks.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The 14 years passed since Maines, Maguire and Strayer last delivered new music were occupied with occasional tours, a pair of duo albums by Strayer and Maguire (as Court Yard Hounds), several pregnancies and divorces for all three women. Those joys and trials are referenced often in the lyrics of these songs, mostly written by the trio in collaboration with producer/multi-instrumentalist Jack Antonoff.

The opening title track is pitch-perfect in every way, a fierce yet melodic anthem that picks up elements of the original wide-open Chicks sound while weaving in more modern production flourishes. And while it’s clearly drawn from personal experience—including mention of a husband’s dalliance on a boat that’s referenced even more pointedly later on—the song’s posture leaves little doubt that Maines is calling out all gaslighters, not just the one she used to be married to. “How Do You Sleep At Night?” packs a hefty punch with its somber verses exploding into big, airy, galloping choruses that again call out a lying, cheating spouse. Batting third, sexy romp “Texas Man” is rich with layered harmonies, lively dynamics, and pointed commentary on the now late-40s trio’s current station in life: “Everybody wants the new model / I’m a little bit more traveled / If you got the strength I do / Then sign me up.”

“Everybody Loves You,” the one cover here, also feels like the point where the album loses some of its initial momentum, a somber ballad highlighted by Maguire’s violin. (And in fact, the most notable thing about the song is that little detail; the Chicks are so far outside Nashville’s country scene at this stage that they don’t bother to call her instrument a “fiddle” anymore.) “For Her” is similarly stripped down, working off a gentle melody played on a Wurlitzer and doing a steady build, an empowerment anthem that contradictorily feels like it pulls its punches.

“March March” is the biggest outlier and in many ways the strongest song here, with a stark, almost hip-hop arrangement that puts the focus squarely on the powerful lyric and outstanding vocal work from all three Chicks. It’s like nothing they’ve ever done before, and yet despite having been written two years ago, it’s spot-on in terms of capturing the present moment’s ethos. The focus then returns to the personal with divorce anthem “My Best Friend’s Weddings” and even moreso with “Tights On My Boat,” a tart acoustic-and-harmonies kiss-off to the gaslighting cheater from the title track.

Late highlights include the superb, sassy woman-to-woman pep talk “Juliana Calm Down” and the closing from-her-life-to-the-page plea for release “Set Me Free.” In between, “Young Man” offer’s a mother’s advice to a growing son, while lament “Hope It’s Something Good” sifts through the ashes.

Although it features three powerhouse anthems and several strong secondary cuts, the album loses energy in the second half, where some of its quieter numbers feel better suited for a solo singer-songwriter album than a group whose trademark is their big, harmony-rich sound. That said, Gaslighter is an invigorating and very welcome return to form that shows Maguire, Maines and Strayer have a lot left to say together—not to mention impeccable timing.

Rating: B+

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