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Dixie Chicks

God bless the Dixie Chicks for remaining true to their liberal ideals within a musical genre that has traditionally catered to red-state attitudes and demographics.

The Chicks' first album since the Dubya flap features the gloriously defiant first single "Not Ready to Make Nice," but all 14 songs are sterling examples of expert songwriting, arrangements that pop and state-of-the-art production by Rick Rubin, who has worked with such diverse artists as Slayer, Johnny Cash and the Red Hot Chili Peppers.

Rubin's genius is that he focuses on the Chicks' strengths and doesn't water down their sound, but instinctively crafts high-quality tunes that have artistic integrity and commercial value. While he brings pop shimmer to the Chicks' sound, they still rely on rootsy Americana.

Apologies to Shania, Faith and Wynonna, but the Dixie Chicks have set the gold standard for country infused with rock and pop elements. This sensibility is partly due to the Chicks co-writing all the songs here with such expert songsmiths as Sheryl Crow, Neil Finn, Linda Perry, Keb Mo, Gary Louris (the Jayhawks), Mike Campbell (Tom Petty) and Dan Wilson (Semisonic).

Rare is the CD that I want to play more than two or three times, but this one keeps spinning. My favorite tune shifts from day to day. First, of course, it was "Not Ready to Make Nice," then it was the fab opening track "The Long Way Around." Later, I embraced the R&B girl-group melodies of "I Like It" and the incredibly tender "Lullaby." As of this writing, it's the latticework of harmonies and bittersweet sentiments of "Silent House" that win me over.

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