Despite their girly name, there is a toughness to the Dixie Chicks, an artfully controlled yet implacable firmness, that shows up the bluff braggadocio of -- to name just the most ubiquitous country-music example right now -- the regrettable Toby Keith. These Chicks countenance no bull.
''Long Time Gone,'' the leadoff track on their new album, Home, makes punning references to Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, and Hank Williams, but for the Chicks, name-checking old-school country isn't a way to score points with traditionalists or critics -- it's a way of acknowledging that they couldn't pull off their glossy-image, high-tech/down-home synthesis without rooting it in the earthy emotionalism of their forebears. As a result, the deeply exhilarating ''Home'' already has the feel of a timeless recording.
The Chicks have produced a magisterial album that finds singer Natalie Maines, fiddler Martie Maguire, and banjo player Emily Robison working with Maines' pedal steeler dad, Lloyd. Maines' sharp-tongued phrasing and meticulously restrained melisma (''American Idol'' candidates should study her technique immediately) redeem potentially maudlin material like ''Travellin' Soldier'' and ''More Love,'' and lift the quality of two Patty Griffin songs, ''Truth No. 2'' and ''Top of the World,'' in a way their author herself could not. And the Chicks' harmonies on Stevie Nicks' great weepie ''Landslide'' blend to approximate Nicks' own burred, modulated wail -- their pleasure in the song could not come through more vibrantly.
While they throw down fine hoedowns on ''Tortured, Tangled Hearts'' and ''White Trash Wedding,'' their best moments are on ultra-Chick renderings of tracks like Darrell Scott's ''Long Time Gone'' and Maia and Randy Sharp's ''A Home,'' performances that blend country, rock, bluegrass, and pop with a surging power that sweeps you along. If the group has cast off some of the youthful eclecticism, the three Chicks have pulled off something more difficult: refined their trademark sound without allowing it to turn into a copyrighted formula. Their ''Home'' sounds like an entire world to be explored.