Already a pariah in fickle Nashville for daring to speak out against a Republican president, the idea that lead Dixie Chick Natalie Maines would go rogue and assemble her own record seemed something of a foregone conclusion; as the face of one of the only artistically-viable acts working within the modern country genre, she’s already considered something of a maverick, a firebrand. No, her coming-out party as a solo artist isn’t startling by its existence; what may take listeners aback is how effortlessly Maines has shucked aside her familiar “country” brand, releasing a smart, textured, wistful record that splits the difference between indie-rock and alt-country.
Mother is essentially a covers record, albeit one that a. largely avoids easily-recognizable chestnuts and b. does feature an original Maines composition. Lazy? Gimmicky? Nope — with a roster of musicians curated by producer Ben Harper and a veritable armful of deep album cuts on the plate, it’s eminently clear that these are tracks that Natalie has loved, savored, and pored over long before taking her own elastic voice to the tunes. By equal turns raw and fragile, punchy and sweetly tuneful, the track list on Mother reads like a rainy-day mixtape from someone with cooler taste than you.
Sometimes this means reinvention — the invisible groove she hears in opener “Without You”, resurrected from buddy Eddie Vedder’s solo record Ukulele Songs, adds a pleasant twist to a lovely song — although Maines proves herself adept at remaining true to a song’s innate soul. The two most recognizable tracks here — the wrenching Pink Floyd ballad that serves as title track and Jeff Buckley’s euphoric Grace centerpiece “Lover, You Should’ve Come Over” — are covered in relatively faithful fashion. “Mother” retains Pink Floyd’s core melody and arrangement, while stripping back the production considerably; it’s haunting and lovely. “Lover”, meanwhile, rests squarely on Maines’ ability to replicate Buckley’s canyon-scaling falsetto, which she does nicely (and in full voice) without ever sounding like an overzealous karaoke singer. (We’ve covered many hit-and-miss-but-mostly-miss cover albums around these parts, and making one sound organic is something of a secret challenge.)
Maines does all this with a remarkable consistency of sound — she goes raw for Patty Griffin’s “Silver Bell” and a duet with Ben Harper on his own snarling “Trained”, but the bloozy rawk of these tracks never sounds at odds with, say, “Come Cryin’ to Me”, a chugging Dixie Chicks number scrapped from their acclaimed Taking the Long Way record. This sounds like the remarkably naturalistic work of a master singer-songwriter; Mother may be culled from Maines’ favorite iPod playlist, but her acrobatic vocals and emotional authenticity go a long way towards making the album gel. The Jayhawks’ “I’d Run Away” sounds just as much Maines as her own “Take It On Faith”, dressed in fuzzy guitars and orchestral swells; a cover of frequent songwriting collaborator Dan Wilson’s “Free Life” is as wistful and gorgeous as the original. And throughout, Maines never stoops to rehashing old tricks; only stray traces of telltale twang remain present in her vocal DNA, and there’s a vulnerability at play that belies Maines’ barnstorming Dixie Chick persona.
The rare covers album that works, Natalie Maines’ solo debut is a quiet triumph; great taste in songs and collaborators can go a long way, but being a natural performer is where all the longevity’s at.