Key Tracks: “The One That Got Away,” “Devil’s Backbone”
A band name and bleak album cover have never sounded so apropos, as the Civil Wars release their second album amid public fighting. The folksy duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White have been having trouble making their partnership work lately, something that has not been kept secret from the media’s eye. While it is awful to have a group – especially a duo – struggling to make their magic work, the resulting product is a beautifully tormented album of folksy sadness and acoustic ballads. Whatever is happening over at the Civil Wars home base, they have pushed through to release music as planned, and although only some of the tension seeps through the album, we’re left with a whole album of strung together painful memories and broken hearts, always sounding beautiful and never too mellow or self-indulgent.
Save two covers – Etta James’ “Tell Mama” and a surprising, lyric-only cover of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” – Williams and White share writing duties on every song (alongside a few other names). Williams seems to get a majority of the vocal duties, however, getting many moments to shine her powerful and remorseful voice. Parts of “Tell Mama” have the instruments cut out almost entirely behind Williams’ singing. White still gets his moments. Closer “D’Arline” sees him expanding his vocal wings too. Some tracks, like single “From This Valley,” feature some beautiful harmonies ripped right out of a CSNY song. Both singers have strong voices, ones that can intensify the sadness and the internal tension.
“The Civil Wars” is very light on music. Few songs feature more than an acoustic guitar and violin, if even the latter. This album is low-key folk to the max (or better yet, the min), focusing on the strength of the vocals and lyrics. Luckily, the tempos are constantly switched out. The album is never too slow, bolstered by a pleasant number of faster tracks. People that are not too into the light nature of the album might find it tedious by the end, but it stands as a beautiful piece of folk art that maintains a message without overstaying it’s welcome. “The Civil Wars” might be the most accurate album title of the year. Let’s hope they can work through everything and keep going.
If you like this, try: I don’t need to plug this band, but Fleet Foxes. Both albums of theirs are more harmonized, folksy sadness, albeit with a little more instrumentation.
-By Andrew McNally