Court Yard Hounds

Court Yard Hounds

Columbia, 2010

http://www.courtyardhounds.com

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 05/29/2010

Funny thing about musicians; they’re often happiest when making music.

Sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire were the core of the Dixie Chicks before anyone had ever heard of Natalie Maines, who has been their lead vocalist since their 1998 major-label debut Wide Open Spaces.   With four years passed since the Chicks’ 2005 album Taking The Long Way and Maines not yet ready to start work on a new album, the restless Robison and Maguire decided last year that the time was right to try recording without her. 

Court Yard Hounds is the debut effort of the sisters’ new side project, on which they are accompanied by many familiar faces from the Dixie Chicks’ entourage, up to and including Natalie’s pop Lloyd Maines on slide guitar.  The resulting album is both unsurprising and full of familiar pleasures, shining a brighter spotlight on Robison’s appealing voice and Maguire’s superb harmonies and fiddle playing.  It also gives the duo a chance to stretch their songwriting muscles, as the Dixie Chicks have often relied on outside songwriters, even for the mostly self-composed Taking The Long Way, where the trio had help from an all-star roster of co-writers including Dan Wilson (Semisonic), Gary Louris (Jayhawks), Neil Finn (Crowded House) and Keb’ Mo’.  The primary writer on this disc is Robison, often in tandem with the duo’s guitar player Martin Strayer.

One of the sources of this burst of creativity was Robison’s divorce, which means this cycle of songs talks a lot about fairytale endings that don’t quite happen, wanting to be with someone you can’t be with, loneliness, heartbreak and renewed independence.   Robison takes almost all of the lead vocals and does a terrific job; her voice is softer than Maines’, to be sure, but it’s plenty strong enough, and in fact sounds quite a bit like Sheryl Crow, who likewise got her start as a harmony vocalist.  my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

As is the case with the Dixie Chicks, Court Yard Hounds build their music on a country foundation but decline to be bound by genre, featuring fiddle, steel guitar and banjo while ranging confidently beyond the musical confines observed by most of their country music peers. 

Right off the bat, the sisters dip into blues-folk (“Skyline”), lilting country-rock (“The Coast”), and unleash a grooving bit of Ben Harper-esque country-soul in “Delight (Something New Under The Sun)” – at least for the first stanza of this tune, which has three distinct movements (country-soul-prog?).  At 1:15 the guitars and drums come in and the song surges; from there it’s a nice mid-tempo rock song that builds steadily until it soars to a false finish at 3:30, after which it returns with a concluding verse built on a completely different melody.

Next up, Jakob Dylan stops in for a clever, beautifully executed country folk duet about lovers divided by climate and geography (“See You In The Spring”).  In true Dixie Chicks fashion, this smart but comfortable genre tune is followed by an intense workout that’s far removed from anything the stereotypical country fan might anticipate.  The sole Robison-Maguire co-write here, “Ain’t No Son” starts out bluegrass with fiddle and banjo prominent before kicking into a heavy country-rock arrangement supporting a song where Robison narrates the emotionally explosive confrontation between a gay son coming out and the father who angrily rejects him. 

The middle section of the disc slows things down, with the spare ballad “Fairytale” and the more-or-less by-the-numbers country number “I Miss You” bridging the gap to Maguire’s solo composition (and sole lead vocal) “Gracefully.”  The latter is a pretty, keening ballad that reminds you that, like her sister, Maguire could easily make a case for working as a solo artist, but prefers to be part of a group -- and the choice feels like a smart one.  Robison’s harmony vocals on Maguire’s song are just as complementary as when the roles are reversed; this pair of voices just works phenomenally well together.

The album closes out strongly with a trio of powerful tunes.  “Then Again” feels like Sheryl Crow in one of her introspective, self-critical moods – a lo-fi, witty, foot-tapping song full of hard-won insight .  The banjo and honky-tonk piano-driven “It Didn’t Make A Sound” is a kiss-off with a twist, a sassy, danceable declaration of independence.  The disc closes with the acoustic ballad “Fear Of Wasted Time,” an absolutely gorgeous collection of snapshots of Robison’s life as a mother and career woman, rushing from place to place trying to make sure not a moment is wasted. 

Co-produced by Robison and Maguire with Jim Scott, Court Yard Hounds is an excellent piece of work that offers the duo an alternative outlet for doing what musicians do best.  In general, it’s a softer and more introspective complement to the sisters’ other group, a series of quiet moments that only occasionally erupt into bolder tones. When two voices are this well matched, though, the pace hardly matters.

Rating: B+

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