Having seen the Dixie Chicks a time or two, as well as having seen Natalie Maines with Ben Harper at SXSW, I was struck by how strong and clear her vocals were minus the Chicks and their arena-tour atmosphere. On her own, she loses some of the hoopla that surrounded the Dixie Chicks- removing much of it to reveal a refreshingly unapologetic and take-me-as-I-am Maines. Her solo debut isn't stripped down in the musical sense, but it does move forward her career in a way that makes it seem as though some of her true talents were lost in the Dixie shuffle- hiding behind layers of country instrumentation and obviously other vocals, while Mother seems to put Natalie Maines at the forefront - truly - for the first time.
The album opens up warmly, with a wide open sound that is also robust and full- which is interesting, given that the first track on this album is a cover of Eddie Vedder's "Without You," off of his Ukulele Songs album. She turns Eddie's "Without You" in a completely different direction, taking his soft, plucky ukulele song and turning it into a full bodied production that just sounds made for her still-kinda-country voice. On an album of 10 tracks, roughly half are covers of previously recorded songs- and not obscure tracks, either- she chooses bold covers like the Eddie Vedder track, Jeff Buckley, and Pink Floyd, whose track Mother supplies the album's title. Originally recorded for the West of Memphis: Voices for Justice Soundtrack, she upholds the original's haunting quietness, but with a unique perspective given by her vocals. She seems to approach each "cover", if you can even call them that, with a clear conscience of what she wants to do with it and how she wants to make it her own, no doubt aided along with the help of album producer Ben Harper.
Natalie's album came about somewhat serendipitously with Ben Harper's encouragement, and you can sense the 'let's just see what happens here' feel of the album. With Ben's influence giving it a rockier edge than anything she's done prior, it still has a bit of an alt-country vibe as if to not completely eschew her past, but it is only there vaguely in a way that allows the other tones of the album to be the main layer. Other tracks, like the Ben Harper- penned "Vein in Vein" also have vague remnants of her country past thanks to the sounds of a slide guitar, but with a melancholic, rockabye sway that illustrates her attempt to move away from that on this album. Then as if to prove her point, the album's arrangement has the next track, "Trained" blasting in at full speed. Also written by Ben Harper, it further highlights his multifaceted talents, and shows his stamp on this record by knowing that Natalie Maines has the same versatility to tackle songs like this. "Take It On Faith" continues driving the train with its heavy darkness, a final defiant end to the album. Perhaps this is why Mother seems like such a force- having Ben Harper as her sidekick on this effort seems to have pulled things out of Natalie Maines that perhaps she didn't know she had inside- and probably we didn't, either.
|Natalie Maines at SXSW
|Natalie Maines with Ben Harper at SXSW
|Ben Harper at SXSW
|Natalie Maines, Lloyd Maines, Ben Harper at SXSW