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The Chicks - Gaslighter (Album Review)

Tuesday, 28 July 2020 Written by Simon Ramsay

Photo: Robin Harper

The Chicks’ decision to ditch the ‘Dixie’ from their name due to the word’s historic association with the Confederate south is a change that, by distancing the band from the past and moving forward with a more enlightened, modern outlook, unwittingly reflects both the musical and lyrical content of their first new record in 14 years.

A flat out pop reinvention with barely a hint of their country-bluegrass beginnings, ‘Gaslighter’ finds the trio, in collaboration with super producer Jack Antonoff (Taylor Swift) and A-List songwriters like Teddy Geiger, concocting the kind of glossy, hook-laden pop nuggets Swift might have penned for ‘1989’ with a few more miles, and a gut wrenching divorce, under her belt.

In truth, this isn’t a complete volte face. From Wide Open Spaces to Ready To Run, the Chicks have always housed strong, radio friendly refrains within their rootsy aesthetic. 

With that easygoing, melodic sparkle to the fore on ‘Gaslighter’, Sleep At Night and For Her exemplify the kind of contagious choruses you want from a punchy and immediate pop number.  

But although the threesome’s inimitable harmonies deliver such cracking payoffs, most notably on the gloriously infectious title track (named in ‘honour’ of Donald Trump) they’re sadly underused here.

Likewise the individual contributions of Martie Maguire and Emily Strayer (fiddle, mandolin, banjo etc) largely exist in the shadow of Antonoff and his depthless repository of contemporary textures. With 70 or so instrumental and programming contributions, as well as nine co-writes, to his name, ‘Gaslighter’ could be a Natalie Maines solo effort with Antonoff as key foil.  

Not that it’s a bad thing. Focusing on Maines’ divorce from actor Adrian Pasdar, the singer’s character-drenched, literal, and no-holds-barred lyrical voice, in unison with Antonoff’s musicality, gives ‘Gaslighter’ an identity that’s pleasingly fresh and comfortingly familiar. And thanks to some classic Nashville storytelling, there’s maturity and substance here you won’t find on many pop records.

Throughout these uncensored confessionals Maines pulls zero punches. We’re used to her being a firebrand, so when she eviscerates Pasdar during Tights On My Boat, sarcastically stating, “I hope you die peacefully in your sleep, just kidding, I hope it hurts like you hurt me,” it’s no surprise. What’s more interesting, however, is the depth of her emotional excavation, creating a web of anger, vulnerability, confusion, disconsolation and desperation on Everybody Loves You and My Best Friend’s Weddings.

But for all those plaudits, after listening to the LP's poignant final three tracks (Young Man, I Hope It’s Something Good and Set Me Free), where the Chicks take centre stage together over sparsely painted backdrops, it’s hard to shake the feeling all these songs would have worked better as organic country cuts with more prominent contributions from Maguire and Strayer.

And still, by welding identifiable elements from the band’s previous work to this contemporary sonic identity, and zeroing in on Maines’ story, ‘Gaslighter’ is a mostly successful reboot that shows, much like the name change, how even negative experiences can inform, educate and make us better people if we learn from what was successful, dispense with what wasn’t, and push on with newfound purpose and insight.

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