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Dixie Chicks back to the nest.

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The Dixie Chicks

(Columbia)

It may not be hip, but I'd gladly trade Gillian Welch's (not to mention Ryan Adams') entire recorded output for one good Dixie Chicks single. With their bluegrass roots (and bluegrass chops), the Chicks may be the rare mainstream country act poised to get respect from the legions who have bought into the O Brother fetishization of "old-timey" music, but they're better than that. Rather than pine for a world that no longer exists, the Dixie Chicks make music that speaks -- with wit, heart, and smarts -- to a contemporary reality. Theirs is music made by and for the Suburban Cowgirls who make up the largest segment of the country music audience, and there's nothing wrong with that.

Bluegrass-bred sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire may provide the acoustic grounding that allows the band to come off as more than just the rootsy pop band that they mostly are, but it's lead singer Natalie Maines who closes the deal. Maines may be a pedestrian vocalist by the high standards of country music, but she's also a positively era-defining bundle of energy and attitude, her unabashed, guilt- and defiance-free expressions of feminism and sexuality, her tomboy playfulness and everygirl enthusiasm striking just the right tone for a country music audience mostly a generation or two removed from rural roots.

Home is the Chicks' third album and marks the third straight time the lead single has come on like a nonchalant cultural manifesto. "Long Time Gone" expresses the demographic shift that the band rides atop even more directly than either "Wide Open Spaces" or (still my fave Chicks single) "Ready To Run," melding bluegrass inflections with let-'er-rip, rock-schooled propulsion. The lyric, penned by a guy named Darrell Scott, may familiarly yearn for a more "authentic" country music past, but the gals' performance springs eternally forward. When they leap into the final line of the chorus -- "and it ain't coming back again" --it's neither lament nor exultation. Just a fact to be dealt with and moved past.

After opening with this, Home dips into a cover of "Landslide," a move that may sound unduly crass for honky-tonk diehards, but I say if you're gonna make modern country's connection to El Lay soft rock explicit, better Fleetwood Mac than the dread Eagles.

But the limitations hinted at in the "Landslide" lyrics are instructive. Home backs away from the ace pop move of their 1999 album Fly, instead embracing two predictable and decidedly less exciting musical directions: getting serious with some slow songs and focusing more on their bluegrass roots.

This means a bluegrass instrumental ("Lil' Jack Spade"), a downbeat, orchestral closer ("Top Of the World"), and a song about the Vietnam War, of all things ("Travelin' Soldier," as effectively tearjerking and devoid of political perspective as you'd expect from Nashville). And though they make the formula work most of the time ("More Love," the quietly moving "A Home," and the would-be bluegrass standard "Tortured, Tangled Hearts" are standouts), the record just doesn't have the spark that made Fly live up to its title.

The light moments here fall short. The too-easy one-note joke "White Trash Wedding" has none of the daring of Fly's "Goodbye Earl" or "Sin Wagon," though, as a bluegrass showcase, they have plenty of fun with it. By contrast, the O Brother divas (even good sport Alison Krauss) would probably be mortified to bite into something so silly and undignified.

In the end, the titles tell the story: Wide Open Spaces yearned for more than three cute blondes in a country-pop band are expected to want. The simple, expansive Fly tossed self-consciousness out the window and pursued complicated fun at all costs. The comfortable Home is a bit of a retrenchment. Here's hoping the Dixie Chicks are merely preparing for another takeoff the next time out. -- Chris Herrington

Grade: B+

Le Funk

VHS or Beta

(On!)

Credibility has always been a problem for the dance music left in disco's wake. You know: It's soulless; it's just a bunch of machines; it takes no talent to make. So it's somewhat ironic to find bands of live instrumentalists making or approximating house music. But while live instruments can give the illusion of spontaneity, they can also run the risk of being merely gimmicky.

But VHS or Beta does more than just replicate machine-tooled precision. They may combine vintage disco with contemporary house, but they also add a loose, improvisatory feel that's pitched somewhere between post-rave and post-Dead camps. Granted, that could just be the resemblance between Zeke Buck's guitar tone and Jerry Garcia's, but the group's grassroots live following has something to do with it as well, as does the fact that there's something genuinely shambolic about Le Funk, the Louisville quartet's debut album. The beat is frequently loose enough to threaten to come apart entirely, and the best moments are filled with an interactive friction that recalls the Dead at their most responsive -- only even the aimless stretches have a beat pumping away in the background to keep them from drifting off altogether.

Though Le Funk closes out with a pair of tracks performed in concert, VHS or Beta gets just as much of the gristle of live performance on the studio cuts as well. "Disco Paradise" layers robotic voices over analog synth lines like a Daft Punk song, but the fallible rhythms make it human-scale rather than overwhelming. "Solid Gold" opens with the sound of waves lapping ashore before breaking into a cool piano groove buttressed by congas and an echoed siren guitar, just like a real Ibiza anthem. And Buck turns "On & On" into a nasty wah-wah shred-fest. Pity the club kids who find it insufficiently credible. -- Michaelangelo Matos

Grade: B+

VHS or Beta will play Young Avenue Deli Tuesday, September 17th.

Mali Music

Mali Music

(Astralwerks)

Most people take their cameras on vacation, but Blur frontman and erstwhile Gorillaz vocalist Damon Albarn takes along his Samick melodica and his tape recorder. During a recent trek through the African country of Mali, he sat in with and recorded native musicians playing in nightclubs and on street corners. When he returned to England, he transformed the fragments into song collages and sent them back to the Malian musicians, who recorded their own parts over Albarn's tracks. The resulting album is simply called Mali Music.

While Albarn gets songwriting credit on almost every track, the album is neither vanity nor side project. In fact, the two vying traditions on the album are fairly well balanced, an equal cross-pollination of styles and influences. The laid-back "Spoons" and the upbeat "Makelekele" both thrum with westernized beats and samples, which are delivered with hand drums and a njurka (a traditional violin). Afel Boucom's vocals perfectly evoke the haze and bustle of "Bamako City," while singer Ko Kan Ko Sata Doumbia's dusky syllables illuminate the too-short "Ko Kan Ko Sata Doumbia On River."

What could have easily been an exploitive or imperialist effort is instead an enthusiastic undertaking by musicians from two very different camps. What's more, it's all for a good cause: Proceeds from Mali Music will benefit humanitarian organization Oxfam's efforts in rural regions of Mali. -- Stephen Deusner

Grade: B+

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