I’m pretty interested to see what public court of opinion and interest is for a sophomore effort from the folk-rock duo of John Paul White and Joy Williams (aka The Civil Wars). After taking iTunes by storm and in turn debuting in Billboard’s Top 20 with their debut Barton Hollow (2011), they seemed an overnight success story…even if it’d been two years in the making. The promotional and touring cycle included Grammy nominations for both Best Folk Album and Best Country Duo/Group Performance; performances at The White House and a slew of year-end ‘Best Of,’ lists. In November 2012, the two went on a hiatus citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.” Yet here we are, nine months later with the proper follow-up to Barton Hollow.
Like most others around America, I fell in love with ‘Poison & Wine,’ — a near perfect southern Gothic ballad. The video was powerful and White seemed to be a lock for best video performance for most pained man in America. I found the rest of the album serviceable with the duo having nice harmonies and a sound that lent itself to crossover pop. Save for the album’s title track, there lacked an edge to their music though. It would seem there were better stories they could tell.
When I listen to the opening strands of album lead-off and first single ‘The One That Got Away,’ I can’t help but think of Richie Sambora’s steel guitar on ‘Wanted Dead or Alive.’ I’m quickly brought back into the now with Joy Williams chorus of ‘Oh/I wish I never saw your face/I wish you were the one that got away…’ It’s gritty…and vocally John Paul barely shows up. An interesting track as a lead-off statement for an album that almost wasn’t. While Williams and White may be married to others, their public persona reflected something different – whether explicity or implicitly applied. ‘I Had Me a Girl,’ leads with a Black Keys-like electric guitar squalor giving way to White’s hard acoustic strum. White’s vocals dominate, but the duo find middle ground in the harmonies once again.
I read a recent interview with NPR where Williams talked about writing songs about the end of a relationship or how one or the other person is supposed to move on. Williams stated she wanted to approach it from the point of the grey area sometimes known as the ‘ache of monogamy.’ This is what ‘Same Old, Same Old,’ reflects lyrically. In some ways, this song is the lynch-pin for this album. Exploring how you keep the train from rolling off the track.
While the drum track on ‘Dust to Dust,’ is cheesy and a cop-out, I dig the simplistic guitar and piano accompaniment to one of, if not the best vocal/lyrical performance on the album. I love the lines, ‘You’re like a mirror/reflecting me/takes one to know one/so take it from me…’
The opening lines of ‘Eavesdrop,’ sound like they could’ve been off of the latest Jimmy Eat World album, but then Joy’s voice comes in. If ‘Same Old,’ is the emotional lynch-pin, then ‘Eavesdrop,’ is the pop gem of the album that could be featured in any romantic comedy over the next year and a half.
Tom Petty, in a recent Rolling Stone interview was quoted as saying he felt current Country music was just ‘bad rock with a fiddle.’ I get where he’s coming from with the quote. While The Civil Wars never set out to be anything other than who they are – they certainly do borrow from the strains/strands of Country music that’s barely audible these days as the Taylor Swifts of the world continue to bridge Wal-Mart’s middle. I blame Mutt Lange’s unholy matrimony to Shania Twain all those years ago.
‘Devil’s Backbone,’ and ‘From This Valley,’ are more authentic ‘from the Appalachia’s to the Oklahoma’s,’ Americana folk with the latter prominently featuring an upright bass.
‘Tell Mama,’ is a gripping tune featuring a simple arrangement of an acoustic guitar, mandolin and violin paired with William’s plea for a son to let go of a woman who’s no good for him. Conversely, ‘Oh Henry,’ confronts an untrue lover head on.
Next up is the album’s curve ball. What happens when The Civil Wars take on The Smashing Pumpkins ‘Disarm?’ Being a hardcore Pumpkins fan from 1988-2000, I almost couldn’t believe it on second listen when I picked up lyrically on the chorus. I love it when another artist both honors the original and completely re-invents it effectively. Where the original was filled with strings and Corgan’s signature voice, The Civil Wars strip down a tune that originally bore a soul to millions of listeners into something incredibly intimate. It’s also perhaps only the second time on the album where both White and Williams seem truly in harmony and dedicated to the task vocally.
Unfortunately, it’s followed by a song sang in French called ‘Sacred Heart.’ Oh Joy, don’t you know Ze American’s hate Ze French? Nothing could be more anti-American folk than singing in French. It’s even got that Calliope-wielding-organ thing in the middle too. My ears cringe as I skip forward.
The album closes with ‘D’Arline,’ which sounds almost intentionally like a demo recorded in a phone booth. With such solid production over the course of 10 tracks, I’m puzzled as to the inclusion of the final two songs.
In any case, the album is a formidable sophomore effort and builds on the success of the first album. Its themes juxtapose the devil and god, good and evil, pining for the bad boys and warnings to stay away from the bad girls, and tackles relationships (including the one between White and Williams) from the ‘fight-or-flight,’ ruts that occur. Musically, Charlie Peacock transforms album number two into an almost Diane Warren (think Aerosmith’s ‘I Don’t Wanna Miss a Thing,’) meets T-Bone Burnett (think Robert Plant and Alison Krauss) type of album. If you’re down with that kind of adult contemporary folk-rock album, then this one’s gonna be right up your alley…