Dixie Chicks

Fly (Monument Records)

"There's no rest at all in freedom," Natalie Maines sings with heavy-Raitt passion on "Let Him Fly," the Patty Griffin-penned closer to the new Dixie Chicks album Fly. Indeed, the Chicks seem to take that line to heart because -- even after selling seven million copies of their Nashville debut Wide Open Spaces and given a monster studio budget for the follow-up -- the trio sounds as though it still has something to prove. Five of Fly's 14 cuts were written or co-written by the group (including the tepid lead-off single "Ready to Run"), but even more than the authorship is the sense of ownership. These songs, which explore the upside and downside of relationships, are embraced as stories that tell the group's own experiences.

Just like the Chicks membership, which includes newlywed Emily Robison (née Erwin), nearly divorced Maines, and comfortably settled Martie Seidel, Fly gives you the full gamut of emotions, from the cornily upbeat "Cowboy Take Me Away" to the glorious boy-bashing "Hole in My Head," which could be the first country single that sounds like Led Zeppelin in the intro. As for radio hits, which will forever be the group's forte, any number of cuts -- especially the irresistible country throwback of "Mr. Heartbreak" and "Cold Day in July," from hit machine Richard Leigh -- have No. 1 single written all over them. Then there's "Goodbye Earl," which mixes Thelma & Louise with "The Thunder Rolls" to create a clichéd tale of vengeance and a can't-miss hit. And you know they don't hire a string section in Nashville for an album track, so look for the Maines-penned "Without You" (which she sings like it's a great song) to make some sweet noise on country radio down the road.

The franchise is still Maines, whose powerful, elastic vocals make the other country girl singers sound as flat as Anne Murray at sound check. She also has a playfully defiant streak, shown when she repeats a naughty line from "Sin Wagon" by exclaiming "That's right, I said mattress dancin'!" In Maines, producers Blake Chancey and Paul Worley have found a singer who could step into the spunky country-chick formula they failed with on Joy Lynn White. Seidel and Robison add sweet sisterly harmonies, a cool image, and a jaw-dropping gimmick when they rip it up instrumentally.

The Chicks have put most of their originals at the LP's midsection, apparently hoping to disguise them. But they really don't lose a thing with the try-fecta of "Don't Waste Your Heart," "Sin Wagon," and "Without You." At the end comes the mournful and introspective "Let Him Fly," which, like all great LP closers, gives a hint at where the artists will head in the future. It's one of the most gorgeous and touching pieces of music you'll hear all year, and when Maines hits the sentiments head-on without flinching, you just know that the next album will be even better.

 
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