Taking the Long Way Open Wide/Columbia Music ••• Sound •••
Given the backlash, boycotts, and even death threats they've had to endure in the three years since Natalie Maines made the unfortunate mistake of exercising her right of free speech, you can hardly blame the Dixie Chicks for wanting to distance themselves from the country establishment. Taking the Long Way, however, doesn't seem to be the right answer. Submerging their main strengths - especially the dazzling instrumental interplay of sisters Emily Robison (banjo) and Martie Maguire (fiddle) - under Rick Rubin's kitchen-sink production, the Chicks sound more like average L.A. pop-rockers than a Texas bluegrass-based trio. There are moments: The high-flying "Lubbock or Leave It" and the uncluttered pro-peace anthem "I Hope" are as good as anything they've ever done. Let's just hope they aren't completely abandoning their inner Dixie; that'd really be throwing out the baby with the bathwater.