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Dixie Chicks
Fly
(Monument)

"Let's go out to the lake, Earl/We'll pack a lunch/And stuff you in the trunk/. . . Earl had to die."

"Where's mama?/She's taking a little nap in the trunk/. . . Mama said she wants to show how far she can float/And don't worry about that little boo-boo on her throat."

Quick — which of the above lyrics belongs to a rapper whose exaggerated tales of murder, mayhem, and inebriation made him a target of media and good-taste watchdogs earlier this year, and which belongs to America's new pop/country sweethearts, whose new album (with no parental warning sticker) is sure to be a big and consistent seller through the holidays?

Not much difference, is there, between the latter (Eminem's "'97 Bonnie & Clyde" from The Slim Shady LP) and the former ("Goodbye Earl" from the Dixie Chicks' Fly)? Yet, while Wal-Mart bans one, they proudly present the other as Decent American Music. It goes to show that three cute Southern gals can get away with things that get a scrawny white kid from the projects crucified. And it doesn't stop there. On "Sin Wagon," firecracker singer Natalie Maines soaks in a night of sexual sovereignty: "On a mission to make something happen/Feel like Delilah lookin' for Samson/Do a little mattress dancin'," she sings, and in case you missed it, she repeats with even more zeal, "That's right, I said mattress dancin'!" It's not quite Lil' Kim's "How you like it baby?/From the front, from the back/Give that ass a smack," but you get the idea.

And it's that newly honed edge that ignites Fly, the Chicks' follow-up to the megazillion-platinum Wide Open Spaces. They still dip into Nashville schmaltz more often than they should, but by breaking from Music City standards, they make modern country music that exposes both Garth Brooks's raging insincerity and Shania Twain's pop gloss. The Dixie Chicks are simply much closer to real.

And much of that realness rests on Maines, a great country singer with limited range but grand honky-tonk twang. She gives Fly both its heart and sex appeal. Given the right material, the Chicks can soar; they've yet to fill (or even half-fill) either of their breakout albums, however. The best songs here — "Ready to Run," "Don't Waste Your Heart," "Let Him Fly," which addresses Maines's impending, and messy, divorce — still slip into convention, even when using unconventional country instruments like the tin whistle and bodhran drum. — Michael Gallucci

Estrellas de Areito
Los Heroes
(World Circuit/Nonesuch)

If you liked the Buena Vista Social Club recordings, you'll love this two-CD all-star set. Paris-based Ivory Coast producer Raoul Diomandé, a great admirer of Afro-Cuban music, conceived the project. Noting the popularity of New York-based salsa musicians in the 1970s, he went to the source — Havana, in 1979 — to cut these selections.

Juan Pablo Torres recruited the participants and fashioned the charts with their assistance. There are powerful big-band performances here containing impressive work by major trumpeters including Felix Chappotin, regarded as the Louis Armstrong of Cuba; Arturo Sandoval, who plays with taste as well as his usual virtuosity; Guajiro Mirabel; and Jorge Varona. Paquito D'Rivera's on alto sax. Rubén Gonzalez and Jesus Rubalcaba handle piano chores. The brilliant rhythm section includes percussionists Amadito Valdes, Tata Guines, and Ricardo Leon, and Fabian Garcia plays electric bass.

Torres also wanted to represent the gentler influence of the charanga and brought in violinists, including Enrique Jorrin (who's credited with inventing the cha cha cha), Angel Barbazon, and Miguel "Brindis" Barbon, plus flutist Richard Egues.

Chappotin has great presence — he blows a few notes, and you know it's him. Torres contributes warm-toned, fluent trombone spots. As well as Gonzalez played with Buena Vista, he displays more brilliance here; he was younger and gigging on a more consistent basis. The lead vocalists, including Miguelito Cuni, Pio Leyva, and Tito Gomez, improvise with the flexibility of horn players.

The titles and lyrics of some tunes reflect the good-natured atmosphere that prevailed here. They refer to the excellence of Cuban forms ("Even Pantojo Is Dancing, My Son," "Bring on the Guaguanco"), and the performers refer to each other: "Tito Gomez said to me/Son still reigns supreme."

These tracks were made hastily and aren't flawless; nevertheless, they're a marvelous display of inspired and creative artistry. — Harvey Pekar

Filter
Title of Record
(Reprise)

Filter frontman (and Bay Village native) Richard Patrick still has a lot of angst. While almost everyone else (not including ex-boss Trent Reznor) has moved from the aggressive barrage of industrial-strength metal machine music to less tormented endeavors, Patrick and his current crew of hired hands (partner Brian Liesegang is long gone) are still bitching as if it's 1995 on their second album, Title of Record. They turn the amps to eleven, scream at the top of their lungs, and throw themselves into a set of songs that doesn't sound all that different from their last batch.

Without a heavy-duty anchor like "Hey Man, Nice Shot" (the most memorable song on Filter's tedious debut Short Bus, and a damn fine tune by any standard), Title of Record sinks beneath its heavy-handed and grandiose attempts at relevancy. It certainly rocks hard, and there's something cathartic about hearing Patrick get really worked up (particularly during "Welcome to the Fold"'s room-shaking chorus), but this album is ultimately pretty hollow. Once Patrick slides into procedure and sheds his tortured soul, he has nowhere to go.

Stumbling through a wasteland of proto-neo-metal with little direction, Filter tosses four years of studio seclusion into the wind and catches the remnants coming back in its face. The band shapes this album with more ambition and scope than it did last time (when Patrick was still trying to escape Reznor's shadow), but its blistering and bracing take on commercially driven industrial rock is one-dimensional.

Still, Patrick does lead Filter to some more understated material this time around. A couple of songs even discard the electronic gizmos for acoustic guitars, turning a potential gut-buster like "Take a Picture" into a swaying ballad that relies as much on actual melody as it does on Filter formula. The track doesn't say anything new about Patrick (it's the same old therapy session), but it does break up the monotonous crash-and-burn rage of the rest of Title of Record. — Gallucci

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