All parts catharsis and remember-me, Natalie Maines hits one heck of a welcome home note on the very first song of her very first solo album. The cut is called Without You, written by Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder; the comeback LP, released this week, is called Mother, the first we've heard from the former Dixie Chick in seven long years.
Without You is warm, catchy, likable, and Maines sounds like she's truly enjoying her work again, something that couldn't be said about the last couple of Chicks albums. Straight off the bat she's vibrant, especially backed by the woozy slide guitar of the great Ben Harper, who also co-produced Mother. If she has no interest in country music anymore — and, let's be honest, who can blame her? — so be it; she's a roots-rocker now, and the dusty old shoe fits just fine.
There was a time when Maines was the life of the party. As the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, the 5-foot-3 spitfire from Lubbock, Texas, had a holler twice her size, leading the country trio on such go-girl anthems as Sin Wagon and Goodbye Earl. But that was before she ripped George W. Bush in London 10 years ago, before the backlash and the death threats, before the Dixie Chicks stopped making joyful albums, before she got married and became a mom and basically left fame in the dust.
Now she's back, and if Mother isn't exactly a saucy return to her robust Dixie days, neither is she withdrawing into obtuse, difficult songs that muted her elastic voice like a shroud. Harper is an energetic star, and he pushes Maines on a raunchy cover of Patty Griffin's sour-love stomp Silver Bell and his own wicked Trained ("You got me trained like a circus freak / To go behind my ears with my feet / While jugglin' fire and keepin' a beat").
Most of the album is midtempo and slower, including a devastatingly drawn out version of Jeff Buckley's Lover, You Should've Come Over. Maines' voice has become sturdier, less yelpy over the years, if no longer as dynamically octave-spanning as when she was 24 belting out Wide Open Spaces. But on this lonely-guy doozy, the 38-year-old proves that she can still put a breathtaking read on a song.
Not everything sticks: Dan Wilson's Free Life is the sort of muddled introspection Maines is too often drawn to, and the title track, a gender-switch of the Pink Floyd classic from The Wall, is interesting once but doesn't really warrant repeat listens.
More often than not, though, this is the Natalie Maines we choose to remember. And if you're looking for clues to her future — or at least what we're all hoping for — check out the chummy vibe of Come Cryin' to Me, a grindy, bluesy port in the storm. It's all about forgiveness and fortitude and knowing "how to fly on the wings of disaster." Co-writers on Come Cryin' to Me? None other than Martie Maguire and Emily Robison, a.k.a. the other two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks. Turn it up and cross your fingers.
Sean Daly can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.