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Indigo Girls stay true blue

The songs may change _ and they do _ but the theme remains the same: staying true to their hearts.

The buzz on the new Indigo Girls album is that they've gone punk. Amy Ray would kind of like to dispel that notion, but she kind of likes it, too.

Sure, you'll find a harder edge in spots of Come On Now Social than you've found before, especially on driving cuts such as Go and Compromise. Yet it's full of classic Indigo Girls songs and sound, from the lilting Soon Be to Nothing to the gorgeous, poignant hidden track The Philosophy of Loss.

"We always want to change things up, every record," says Ray, whose duo is the headline act at an outdoor concert Saturday evening in downtown Tampa.

So she and partner Emily Saliers gave in to the urge to rock a little harder than their previous hits Closer to Fine and Get Out the Map might have you expect.

It's all the sweeter when fans call Come On Now Social the best album the duo has ever produced. And it was almost by accident. They met Sinead O'Connor's drummer, John Reynolds, during the Lilith Fair tour and had "that conversation you have where you say, "We should get together and jam sometime,' " Ray said.

"Before we knew it, we were making a record with him. We had this whole band that we were introduced to by him. He really changed our whole careers."

While some artists try to re-create their most successful songs, the Indigo Girls decided to plow forward. "Our main concern, first and foremost, is songwriting. Past that point, we're so open to try anything. We never really worry about what was a past success. The only thing we worry about is if we're moving too far away from our hearts. Do we still have the spirit? As long as we have that, anything goes.

"It's funny because I think it's rockin' in that even the acoustic stuff has this thing about it, sorta like when Steve Earle does an acoustic record. It's still rockin'."

With guest artists such as Joan Osborne, Me'Shell Ndegeocello, Garth Hudson, Sheryl Crow and Rick Danko popping up on the album, it might seem like part of a marketing trend (a la Santana's Supernatural or Prince's Rave Un2 the Joy Fantastic). To Ray, however, "It's just the way we operate; it's all about jamming."

Both Ray and Saliers are fiercely independent in their writing, with neither contributing so much as a line to each other's tunes.

"We rarely even comment on each other's arrangements," Ray says. "We write our songs, then we bring them to the table. Then we work together to create something that's an Indigo Girls song."

Come On Now Social is full of those, but it has moments even more politically charged than the Atlanta duo's previous work. One song stirring controversy is Faye Tucker, a reflection on the executed Texas murderer who last year became a cause celebre both to the Christian right and to death-penalty opponents. Convicted of a heinous killing, Tucker got attention for her gender, her good looks and her jailhouse religious conversion.

"That was what was so interesting about her case to me," says Ray, a staunch death-penalty opponent who sees a contradiction in punishing murder with murder. "The Christian coalition was really interested in saving her because she was a reborn Christian. But they're not coming to the aid of any other (death row inmates). That, to me, was very absurdist and they're strange bedfellows for the anti-death-penalty movement."