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August 8, 2020

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Icon music review: There’s a lot here to like if not completely love

The Chicks' “Gaslighter” is a powerful anthem full of hope and strong vocals

Gaslighter-The Chicks
Reviewed by Craig Hoffman

Gaslighter is the eighth studio album by American country music group The Chicks. It was released on July 17, 2020, by Columbia Records. It is the first work issued by the group since their name change from the Dixie Chicks.

The band changed their name to The Chicks after the group received criticism for being tacitly connected to American slavery.  “We were literally teenagers when we picked that stupid name,” said founding group member Martie Maguire, talking about when the Dixie Chicks name was selected back in 1989.

It is not The Chicks first brush with controversy. In 2003, a statement against then-President George Bush by lead singer Natalie Maines got the women a subsequent ban from airplay on country radio stations across the country. More recently, the group also got into a kerfuffle over a joint performance with mega-star Beyoncé  at the Country Music Awards (CMA) in 2016. 

While other stars outside of mainstream country music previously performed at the CMAs, there was, in some people’s view, a racially-tinged backlash to a person of color on a country music awards’ show. “They treated us very weird backstage,” Maines said in reference to both the choice of their singing partner and the group’s return to mainstream national media. Gaslighther is the first studio album for the group in 14 years. 

“I was tired. I just wanted to raise my kids.” said Maines explaining the long gap in recording. The group toured in the interim and produced solo and duo albums. Those efforts met with limited commercial and critical success. 

There’s a sense those separate “failures” and the shifting US political landscape prompted their reunion. This latest venture despite early promotion with old cover art and production delays to change the name, was worth the wait. “Gaslighter,” also the name of the title track, is sadly in reference to an ugly divorce battle with Maines’ now ex-husband. 

“Gaslighter” is a powerful anthem full of hope and strong vocals. It has charted well in the US (#7) and across major international markets. The album also features “March March.” The song was inspired by the 2018 March for Our Lives youth protest against gun violence. It offers a powerful message for social change that is now sweeping America in 2020. 

Overall, Gaslighter has been hailed by critics as, “...the best album of 2020…” That’s, perhaps, an overstatement, and more a product of the tumultuous times in which we live. The album is not without a couple creative warts. 

“Sleep at Night,” a track about Maines running into her now ex-husband’s mistress at an event, is a miss on the album. It’s too personal and acerbic for any regular fan to care about it or the singer’s heartache. Too, a few of the tracks like “Texas Man” stray into a hardcore-singing fan catering style that gets too reminiscent of the group’s older music catalog to be considered original. 

In addition, while the social statements are to be applauded, there’s not much here in terms of groundbreaking musical style, save for a moment of connection to The Chicks’ bluegrass roots on the well done, “Hope It’s Something Good.” To be sure, the album would benefit from more tunes like that. 

Yet, the return to commercial and critical success for the drama-plagued trio after so many years in entertainment purgatory cannot be dismissed. There’s a lot here to like if not completely love. 

Final Take: The Chicks under any moniker still know how to put out a quality album. There is no doubt more music awards are in their future for this one. Gaslighter is a must buy for even the most passive fans of The Chicks and lovers of music with a profound sense of purpose. 4.75/5 stars.

Craig Hoffman is a music graduate of Ohio Northern University and The University of Akron School of Music. He also serves as the Icon’s Japan correspondent.