Natalie Maines' first solo album, "Mother," continues her movement into a deeply considered, provocative form of polished adult rock heard on her last recording, the Dixie Chicks' 2006 award-winning "Take the Long Way Home."

As with that album, Maines sets aside the cheeky playfulness that marked her success in country music. Instead, she carefully curates an album of covers and originals by other writers--with one strong original, "Take It on Faith." She leans hard on philosophical lyrics about self-identity (the title song, "Free Life") and the importance of strong relations ("Without You," "Come Cryin' To Me"). Much like Maines' public persona since her fallout with the conservative right after speaking out against the Iraq War, the songs waver between gutsy stands and seeking shelter with those who care for and understand her.

Musically, producer Ben Harper gives her a lush background on intimate songs and a bluesy raucousness on up-tempo tunes. Maines shows how she can wail on rockers like Patty Griffin's "Silver Bell," but it's on Jeff Buckley's dramatic "Lover, You Should've Come Over" that shows how effective she can be with emotional vulnerability and the power of the full range of her vocals.

Maines' talent once put the Dixie Chicks atop the country music world, which made the group's rejection and withdrawal such a loss. "Mother" finds Maines still affected by that controversy. But it also proves that, as an artist, she's still an American treasure.

-- Michael Mccall/Associated Press


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LL Cool J delivers eclectic 13th album

LL Cool J knows how to play well with others.

On his 13th studio album, "Authentic," he delivers an eclectic mix of songs with a variety of guest singers that elevate the material to a worthy listening experience. This is not a rap album, but more of a hip-pop/hip-rock one, hitting all the right notes from romantic to raucous to punk.

The 12-track record sees a roster of stars lend their voices, including Eddie Van Halen; Snoop Dogg; Travis Barker; Monica; Seal; Earth, Wind & Fire and Brad Paisley (not "Accidental Racist," thankfully. Their other collaboration, "Live for You," is a rock ballad that is enjoyable.)

From the sarcastically cinematic intro "Bath Salt," to the delightfully cheesy lust song "Between the Sheetz," to the vivacious, Charlie Wilson-assisted "New Love," the rapper sounds fresh.

There's nothing wrong with pandering when one tries to hang on to artistic relevance, especially when producing a balanced, intriguing album. Who knows, maybe that's the future of music, and Cool James is still a pioneer.

-- Cristina Jaleru, Associated Press