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I seem to recall whilst watching "Shut Up and Sing", the documentary following the Dixie Chicks and the furore around their potentially ill advised comments regarding George W. Bush and the war in Iraq that Natalie Maines had said she couldn't imagine not being without the other two members of the band, sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire. So it came as something of a surprise to discover that after a four year break between album, the next music from the Dixie Chicks would be by a side project called The Courtyard Hounds, containing the sisters without Maines.
It was always likely I'd want a copy of the album, but seeing the pair on the BBC Breakfast news early one morning showing the video to their first single "It Didn't Make a Sound" only firmed my resolve. So it was that I had a copy of the album in my hand on the day of release, which isn't something I tend to do all that often, preferring to wait until prices drop a little or at least until more reviews are available so I can decide how much it's worth paying for it.
Sadly, the album doesn't start well, at least from my stand point as a dedicated Dixie Chicks fan. "Skyline" is a mid-tempo country based tune with quite a laid back feel and quite simple instrumentation. The vocal harmonies are reminiscent of the sisters' work with the Dixie Chicks, but it sometimes feels like a song with no lead singer, lacking Maines' powerful voice from their usual sound as it is. With little variation in the sound or tempo, it's a song that gets slightly boring after a while and it ends up sounding a little more like Sheryl Crow than the Dixie Chicks.
"The Coast" has a louder, more up-tempo and more promising start. It's quite a jaunty little song, with a bouncy country backing that does, at times, seem to drown out the vocals. There's a country-pop sound to it again and whilst it's a more interesting song than the previous effort, it does still have more of a hint of Sheryl Crow about it than anything else.
There's an interesting simple beginning to "Delight (Something New Under the Sun)", which gives the song quite a stripped down country feel. This gradually builds with the addition of the vocal harmonies and then the instrumentation comes in, so it ends up sounding like a combination of the previous two tracks. It's a mid-tempo country track, but with vocals so weak they're buried under the instrumentation at times. This is another track you can't help but think would benefit from Natalie Maines' vocal, but it's not strong enough to be a proper Dixie Chicks song.
There's another simple opening to "See You in the Spring", which is a duet with Jakob Dylan of the Wallflowers, another band I'm quite a fan of. This is a simple country ballad, with the voices working well together and with the music kept far enough in the background that it doesn't overpower the vocals as it has done with earlier tracks. This is certainly the best song on the album up to this point.
However, best song so far credits are quickly snatched away by "Ain't No Son". The Dixie Chicks have never been afraid of tackling tough subjects with their lyrics, so a song about a father's negative reaction to his son announcing to his father that he's gay wouldn't be a stretch from this for the Courtyard Hounds. There's a gentle bluegrass start to the song before it explodes into a storming up-tempo country-rock song. Sadly, as with much on the album, the vocals are a little weak to really work well with the music.
"Fairytale" slows the pace right down. It's a well crafted pop-ballad with a slight country twinge to it. The vocals are once again slightly buried under the music at various points, but as this is a quieter song musically, this isn't quite as noticeable here as with some of the earlier songs. The issue I have with this song is that there's very little variation, so it does get a little monotonous before the end.
Next up is "I Miss You", which is another fairly sweet song. The country influence here is a lot stronger although it's still a rather nondescript song, without much variation throughout it, remaining at a static mid-tempo, which makes the song feel longer than it actually is. The vocal harmonies are well done, but the slightly weak vocal makes this sound more like a Sheryl Crow song than anything else.
Sadly, this is a theme that is to continue with "Gracefully". Once again, it's a well crafter pop ballad with hints of a country influence. Musically, it's a lovely song, with the strings complementing the country sounding guitar very well, but there's not enough variation to make it interesting, despite a section late on where the instruments take over. The lyrics are fairly standard and the vocals are once again a touch weak, which takes the edge off things slightly as well.
"April's Love" solves the album's issue of the vocals being overpowered by the music, by stripping everything back down to basics for the most part and it also solves the issue with monotony in the songs by changing tempo part way through. This is a very basic pop song with just a guitar and violin for the most part, which allows the vocals to shine through a little more. For the first time you can see that the Hounds do have lovely voices, just not the strongest ones around, especially given that they're usually backing vocalists to the vocal powerhouse that is Natalie Maines.
Despite resembling a Sheryl Crow song in almost every way, "Then Again" is one of my favourites from the album. It's a peppy mid-tempo country-pop song with an almost story telling lyric which reminds me of some of Crow's work. The vocals sound a lot like Crow as well, although the banjo and fiddle solo aren't really her usual style. It's a fun song to listen to, with lyrics talking about "flipping off hippies" and a nice foot tapping guitar riff making it quite enjoyable.
"It Didn't Make a Sound" was the song that I first heard from the album and it remains one of my favourites to this day, possibly second only to "Ain't No Son". The banjo backing makes it a country song, but there's also some great boogie woogie piano which gives it a slightly jazzy feel and really adds to the song and really gets your feet tapping. Essentially, this is a decent up-tempo pop-country song which is good fun to listen to and always makes me smile, despite the downbeat lyrical content. This again is about as close as the Hounds have come to emulating the Dixie Chicks, although again with the vocals not quite coming up to scratch.
Sadly, after a couple of entertaining tracks, "Fear of Wasted Time" ends the album on a slightly dull note. Again, it's a nicely crafter pop ballad with the vocal harmonies working well, but there's not a lot else to help it stand up and it meanders to the end of the album without grabbing the listener the way the previous couple of tracks did to me.
To say Courtyard Hounds" is a bad album would be unfair, as there are some decent moments here and there are some well crafter songs. But the vocals, although sweet, are frequently weak and drowned out by the music and there really is nothing particularly original here. The Hounds also suffer from having been a part of such a great group as the Dixie Chicks, which means comparisons are always liable to be drawn between the two acts and they suffer badly for that, particularly on the vocal front.
This isn't a bad album and with 12 tracks and 48 ½ minutes of music, it's not bad value with copies available for as little as £3.99 from Amazon. But it's an album more likely to appeal to fans of Sheryl Crow than fans of the Dixie Chicks, such is the sound of the majority of it. As someone who is a far greater fan of the Dixie Chicks than I am of Sheryl Crow, I did feel a little disappointed by this, but there are enough decent if not spectacular moments here that I'm glad I have the album, even if it does ultimately leave me wishing there was another Dixie Chicks release due very soon.
I'm a long time Dixie Chicks fan so I was intrigued to learn that two of the trio, sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire, were forming a side project and would be releasing an album. I say intrigued rather than excited because the third Dixie Chick, Natalie Maines, is my favourite and is, in my opinion, the driving force behind the band. As well as providing the back vocals that temper Maines's strong voice, these two play banjo and fiddle respectively. I've always thought of them having nice enough voices, but I consider myself a big fan of Natalie Maines whose voice perfectly suits the Dixie Chicks' brand of country.
This album comprises twelve original tracks and those familiar with the Dixie Chicks will probably agree that Maguire and Robison don't really break any new ground with these compositions. In fact I'd really have to say that these songs are nowhere near as good as Dixie Chick songs. Lyrically there are a couple of stand outs but overall they are quite bland numbers. Musically it's interesting that they seem to have (at least partly) ditched the fiddle and banjo and veered more towards the electric country rock sound of Sheryl Crow et al. This, I feel, is their downfall here because their voices, while perfectly pleasant, are not very distinctive and in combination with the rockier sound they could be any of a number of middle of the road vocalists.
Fortunately this isn't typical of all the tracks: there are a couple of excellent numbers. "The Coast", the album's second track, is a lovely fresh up beat song about the pleasure (surprise, surprise) of being at the sea. For the most part it's a really catchy jangly song but it is spoiled a bit by an awful Jeff Lynne type guitar solo near the end. If it had been up to me this song would have been the opening track as the one that was chosen, "Skyline", does them no favours: the problem I have with this one is that I hate Sheryl Crow and this screams Sheryl Crow. It's a gentle acoustic number which is completely at odds with the rest of the album and would have been better placed somewhere near the end. I have to admit to usually skipping it.
"See you in the spring" is my favourite number. It starts off with some wonderful banjo picking which put me in mind of the brilliant blue grass band Crooked Still. The song is a duet with Jakob Dylan (yes, he does a famous dad) and his voice works beautifully with Emily's.
"Ain't No Son of Mine" should be a great track. It starts off with a great bluegrass vibe but suddenly becomes a typical American country rock radio number, full of pomposity and utterly over blown. The song is about a man who reacts badly to learning that is son is gay.
Thematically it's Dixie Chick material through and through but I just don't think the sound suits the sentiment and I shouldn't think, give the Dixie Chicks already controversial relationship with the American media, that this will garner much radio airplay. I would love to hear Natalie Maines sing this song instead; it might just work with a stronger voice.
"I miss you" starts of in a promising way with some pedal steel (always guaranteed to get me excited) but quickly tails off with some pretty naff slide guitar and some shocking lyrics "I miss you, I can't wait to kiss you". Pam Ayres eat your heart out.
"Then Again" has shades of Crow again but is rescued by a really great fiddle solo and some excellent harmonies; unfortunately some really irritating "da da das" drag it down again. "It didn't make a sound" uses some really lovely banjo and is one of the more radio friendly tracks until it inexplicably adds some horrible Jools Holland style piano.
Time after time it's the same story. The style doesn't suit the sentiment or the vocals don't match the style. This isn't an awful album but it's nowhere near as good as anything by the Dixie Chicks and it's always going to be compared with the other band. The songs that work the best are those penned by Robison following her divorce from country musician Charlie Robison. However these are gentle ballads and pale into insignificance with anything the Dixie Chicks have put out.
If you like Sheryl Crow or Shawn Colvin you might just like this one but be warned there are moments when you think "Why did they do that?" There are tinges of country but it's not quite far enough down that road for my approval. This album will stay on my iPod and will get occasional listens but I can't deny I was disappointed.
Disc #1 Tracklisting
2 Coast, The
3 Delight (Something New Under The Sun)
4 See You In The Spring - Court Yard Hounds & Jakob Dylan
5 Ain't No Son
7 I Miss You
9 April's Love
10 Then Again
11 It Didn't Make A Sound
12 Fear Of A Wasted Time