Court Yard Hounds

Columbia Records, 2013

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Rich harmonies and outstanding playing are what sisters Emily Robison and Martie Maguire have always been known for as two-thirds of the Dixie Chicks, and both are front and center on Amelita, the pair’s sophomore album as Court Yard Hounds. Robison takes most of the lead vocals plus banjo, dobro, guitar, and Maguire handles lead vocals twice two while contributing fiddle, mandolin and viola, and each provides harmonies behind the other.

Robison, it must be said, is often a vocal ringer for Sheryl Crow, and while the Hounds’ songs lean to acoustic country-pop, there are elements of rock and soul that further the comparison (not to mention the fact that Crow also started out singing harmony for others herself). This, let’s be clear, is a high compliment in my book.

Amelita, the pair’s second outing as a duo since the Dixie Chicks dialed things back about five years ago, is a warm and satisfying collection of tunes about mature subjects—reflective, perceptive tunes that charm more than they shout, most of them co-written by one or both of the principals with guitarist Martin Strayer. Kickoff cut “Sunshine” is smart tune about that person who appears in everyone’s life at some point, trailed by a cloud of negative energy, raining on every parade s/he can find. In contrast to the subject matter, the song itself is a finger-snapping, foot-tapping confection with a nice surge at the chorus. The depth here comes from the bite of the lyrics that belies the soft, friendly tone of Robison’s voice.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The title cut opens with a rockabilly rhythm section and Robison urgently entreating a friend suffering under bad influences to remember who she is and get her feet back on the ground; not exactly light material, but the arrangement is bright and energetic and the chorus hook sticks like glue. “The World Smiles” follows, a similarly lilting yet introspective examination with especially beautiful picked banjo lines from Robison, featured once again on “Aimless Upward” alongside Maguire’s evocative fiddle.

With “A Guy Like You,” Maguire takes the lead vocal and pulls off the neat trick of making a country ballad sound both sultry and playful, massaging the sweet, slumbering melody. It has Nashville instrumentation, but the feel of a smoky lounge jazz ballad, leaving you with the mental image of Maguire draped over a piano in the proverbial black dress—with Robison at her side playing a banjo.

“Rock All Night” inhabits its title thoroughly, a solid backbeat driving this anthemic celebration, with Hammond organ giving it extra lift. “Phoebe” actually rocks at least as hard as its predecessor, an edgy country-blues tune about standing strong against small-town gossip. Maguire steps up again for “Get You Down,” the only cover here, a slow, sad ballad.

“Watch Your Step” is a breathy rocker with a bit of a strut in the rhythm, while also featuring fiddle, acoustic slide, handclaps and high keening chorus vocals. The track’s swirling, soulful drive and snappy wordplay inevitably remind of Sheryl Crow. Closer “The Road Not Taken” features is a steady-building mid-tempo blues that swells to a nice crescendo near the end.

Robison and Maguire’s roles as harmony vocalists and acoustic instrumentalists for the Dixie Chicks give you a good idea what to expect from Court Yard Hounds. But beyond the mostly lighter and airier sound, there’s plenty of depth here—dynamic arrangements, superb musicianship, and songs with substance. With Amelita, Court Yard Hounds are sounding less like a side project and more like a second career.

Rating: B+

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