Home (Open Wide/Monument/Columbia)

The Dixie Chicks' "Long Time Gone" is about the most startling Top 5 hit in quite a while. You could listen to the radio 'til the cows come home and not hear another song that rocks so hard without electric guitars or drums - or gutsy enough to poke at the radio stations that made it a smash: The music, sings Natalie Maines, ain't got no soul.

There's certainly plenty of soul on Home, which more than delivers on the nerve and promise of that amazing hit. "Long Time Gone" should prepare fans for the Chicks' new direction: a return to the acoustic bluegrass sound of their pre-stardom days, with results that are sometimes rousing and often breathtaking.

Natalie and bandmates Emily Robison and Martie Maguire dress these 12 tracks in no more instrumentation than needed, giving the tunes room to shine on their own - and shine they do. "Travelin' Soldier," written by Emily's brother-in-law Bruce Robison, is an almost unbearably sad story of love in wartime. A graceful turn on Fleetwood Mac's "Landslide" fits in well with the album's main themes of maturing and family. And their closing version of Patty Griffin's aching "Top Of The World" - an elegy to the dreams given up for love - may be the most moving six minutes you'll hear all year.

The maturity and wisdom heard here suggest the Chicks have spent the three long years between albums settling into their lives as wives and mothers. (Emily's first child is due in November.) With Home, the Dixie Chicks really do go home - and they bring us along with them.

-- Chris Neal

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