on August 6, 2013
As of August 2013, the Civil Wars are no more. They are no longer speaking to each other, and are indefinitely broken up. It has been speculated at length as to the nature of Joy Williams and John Paul White's breakup--whether in fact it was a romantic breakup despite both being married to other people, or artistic differences that could not be resolved. One cannot help but listen to this album and to think it's probably both, although the romantic feelings may have stayed emotional and never a full blown physical affair. If their breakup was necessary to create this album though, then I would say it was worth it. Intensely intimate and honest, there is a tortured beauty in the heavenly tones of Joy and John Paul's harmonies. Moments like this happen just once.
The album starts off with the single "The One That Got Away", an impassioned story of regret that showcases Joy and has John Paul singing background to her. Then on the next track, the brooding innuendo laced "I Had Me a Girl", John Paul essentially sounds as if he's answering Joy. This really sets this album apart from their first, in that the music is two people singing to each other instead of with each other. Joy and John Paul are alternatingly smolderingly furious and resignedly fatigued, but always controlled, paying attention to their pitch perfect harmonies.
While there are those moments of breathtaking harmonies like on "Eavesdrop", Joy does seem featured quite a bit more on this album than on their debut. This is a little unfortunate, as Joy's exquisitely pure voice often needs John Paul's raspier vocals to pull it away from coming across as rather melodramatic. Still, I think the balance is more or less there on most of the songs. However, if you're predominately a fan of John Paul's voice--then this will be a big disappointment even though you can feel his influence probably more than on their debut through the music.
Musically, this album infuses more Americana and rock into the Civil War's brand of largely acoustic driven folk/country/gospel. The music has a more aggressive ominous tone to match the heightened emotional stakes with drums and an electric guitar added on several songs making this album sonically different from their debut. Not surprising given John Paul's previous stint as a failed rock artist. This album also sees the inclusion of two covers, "Tell Mama" by Etta James and "Disarm" by Smashing Pumpkins. Strangely, it's the cover of "Disarm" that is one of the album showstoppers with a perfection that comes from the pair having performed it for years for live audiences. Also, the modern day hymn "From This Valley" serves as a nice respite in the middle of the drama providing a glimpse of the way Joy and John Paul used to be.
At times, the album is a little uncomfortable to hear. It's almost as if you've been peeping into your arguing neighbors' window sort of enjoying the entertainment--but then witness them stab each other, and suddenly everything becomes deadly somber and almost claustrophobic. While Joy at least is willing to talk about the album--and has said that the imagery used is just that--poetic imagery, you can hear that it's more. You can feel it, see it. While I recognize the exquisite "The Devil's Backbone" is their purposeful take on an Americana murder ballad--you can't help but think the opening lines are truer than either Joy or John Paul will admit, "Oh Lord, Oh Lord, What have I done..."
This is not a breakup album--it's a Southern Gothic tragedy played out through music. It's quiet. Loud. Desperate. Remorseful. Accusatory. Seductive. It's two excellent solo artists realizing that they will probably never again taste the type of magic that happens only when they're together, and broken that they just can't be together anymore. In my opinion, the album of the year.
on August 7, 2013
Overall I like the Cd. When I first listened to the entire CD I really loved it. The second time was more of a "wait a minute" moment. I like the lyrics and melodies, but there is something missing. There is not enough of JP's voice. Joy's voice is a bit heavy handed in several places which need JP's voice to temper it. On a lot of the harmonies you can barely hear JP's voice at all and that is just really sad. One thing about the CW was the beautiful way their voices melded together. That is mostly missing here. The songs that feature more JP shine. The others not so much. This is really a shame. It could have been great had it not been so one sided.
Best song is "I had me a girl". excellent
If what it took for these two artists to make such fantastic music together was the struggle that apparently has ended their duet, it was worth it. The ethereal voice of Joy Williams blends effortlessly with the soulful stirrings of John Paul White. If these two didn't have a romantic relationship, they have tapped into some very deep feelings in their writing that certainly feels like the end of a romance. The lyrics are poetry of longing and loss. In "The One That Got Away" they sing, "I never meant to get us in this deep. I never meant for this to mean a thing. I wish you were the one that got away." And in "Eavesdrop" John Paul sings, "I can't pull you closer than this. It's just you and the moon on my skin and who says it ever has to end. Oh, don't say it's over. Oh, say it ain't so." You feel like you're eavesdropping on the most private thoughts of this couple as they struggle with their feelings for each other versus their feelings for their respective spouses and families. In "The Same Old, Same Old", it seems that they accept that though they love each other, they can't stay together. If indeed this is the last time we'll hear these two as a duet, it is a great loss. Their voices seem to have been made to blend together. Let's hope they can mend fences and work together on future projects. In the meantime, we'll have to just keep this CD and their previous "Barton Hollow" close by for many, many replays.
on August 6, 2013
I fell in love with The Civil Wars about a year and a half ago, and since then I've been eagerly anticipating the follow up to their--in my eyes--perfect first album. Soon after I heard Barton Hollow, I went back and got all of their older EPs/songs/live albums and watched performance after performance on YouTube. I heard their Hunger Games and A Place at the Table songs and thought, if these were any indicator of their next album, it would not disappoint. I was right. I would not say it beats Barton Hollow, but rather compliments it. The Civil Wars pushes the boundaries in every direction of their debut and the result is a much more eclectic, but equally strong second album.
Here is my track-by-track review, written after listening to the entire album about five or so times (and some songs many more times than that).
(You should perhaps know first off, that I appreciate songs that resonate with me on a personal, emotional and artistic level regardless of what "genre" they may fall under, or what instruments are used, or whether it sounds too "mainstream" or too "indie". I do not care about any of that, especially with regards to The Civil Wars and the music they make. Hopefully my review can reflect that.)
1) The One That Got Away - After a couple of listens to the first single, I fell in love. It's definitely got more production than the sparse songs of Barton Hollow (which I completely love, in their own right), but I think that works to its advantage. There's more angst in their voices and in the instruments. They're not abandoning their old sound--they're just expanding. This song almost has a country-rock feel, but with a heavy dose of The Civil Wars' signature sound. 8/10
2) I Had Me A Girl - I have to confess, I thought I would hate this song at first. Usually, it's the twangy, uptempo songs that are a bit grating to my ears (I may be one of the few TCW fans who tends to prefer the more mellow, folky sound) but I can't help it...after a few listens I was hooked. Only this duo could make me love a song like this. It's sultry, it's sensual, and it makes my extremities tingle. I lament the fact that they have no plans to play it live (other than the one time it was played live in 2012), as it makes for a rousing performance. A standout. 9/10
3) Same Old Same Old - I had heard a couple recordings of this song live when they played it before their hiatus last year and absolutely fell in love. It felt like this album's version of Falling (a personal favorite of mine on Barton Hollow) and I was interested to see how the recorded version would differ from the live one. Like with Falling, when I heard the recording I thought it felt comparatively sadder, and softer. It felt more tired, and hopeless, while the live version felt more angry and passionate. That being said, both versions are near perfection and it's one of my favorite tracks. 9/10
4) Dust to Dust - I quickly fell in love with this song when they were streaming it on NPR...it has a comparatively different vibe than most of their songs, with an electronic drumbeat and a strong bass line. But something about it drew me in. The way their voices were so precise in expressing their weariness. Someone described it as the sad version of I've Got This Friend, and I think that's fairly accurate lyrically. The soft piano gives it just the right vibe to straddle the line between weariness and hope. An absolute favorite of mine. 10/10
5) Eavesdrop - Probably my favorite new discovery. It almost comes across in the beginning as if it could be a Taylor Swift song (Goodbye Girl from their extended release of Barton Hollow was another one that gave me this vibe), and yet the lyrics and their heartfelt delivery still live up to The Civil Wars' name. Something about the way it sounds desperate, hopeless and yet comforting really strikes a chord with me. I can just imagine two people that for whatever reason, know they can't be together but they just need to hold each other one last time, to feel like they'll never let go, even if it's inevitable. John Paul's verse delivery is particularly chilling. 10/10
6) Devil's Backbone - An interesting addition. Definitely falls under the "Americana" or "Appalachian" category. It's quite a beautiful melody, but the subject matter makes for an odd addition to an album mostly about highly personal emotions. It's very much of a "story song", and like they said, it's very much an "Americana murder ballad". It almost sounds like it belongs in a film soundtrack like The Hunger Games. Although in a way, you could almost think of it as a sequel to Barton Hollow, so...maybe it does fit more than I'm giving it credit for. 7/10
7) From This Valley - An old favorite. I love this recording. The only other recorded version of this song was on a compilation CD and it was quite different, so it's nice to finally get this one on a record. In terms of the album flow, it's another slightly odd one, given that it's quite a major reprieve from the dark, emotional songs. In one way you're really grateful that there's at least one happy song on the album, but on the other hand, it ultimately causes a bit of a rupture in the flow. Placing it after Devil's Backbone was probably the best place it could be, though. 7/10
8) Tell Mama - Now as much as I've completely fallen in love with all the covers The Civil Wars have done, I'm not usually much for people putting them on their main albums (for Barton Hollow, they were on the extended edition only). But I have to say their take on this song is so stunningly perfect and different that it excuses any doubt I may have had about plopping a cover in the middle of originals. It reminds me of the way they arranged "I Want You Back" for Barton Hollow...and it's just as beautiful. 9/10
9) Oh Henry - A song they've been doing live basically since Barton Hollow came out. It's a good song, definitely catchy. I'm hoping the production will grow on me, as I'm so used to hearing it live with just the electrified guitar. There's a bit of a weird, almost lawnmower-sounding distortion in the background of the chorus that'll take a bit of getting used to. The "woahs" sung by Joy are easily my favorite part of the song...it chills you right down to your bones. 7/10
10) Disarm - Another cover, this time one they've been playing live for quite a while. It's nice to hear John Paul's voice taking the lead again. I don't have a problem with Joy singing the majority at all, but it's still nice to switch things up once in a while. I absolutely love the mandolin (that is a mandolin, right?) at the beginning. It's nice to have a quiet moment after such a high-energy preceding song. 8/10
11) Sacred Heart - How fascinating...a song sung entirely in French! I find it hilarious to realize that on Barton Hollow they had "C'est la Mort", an English song with a French title, and here we have "Sacred Heart", a French song with an English title! I have to say, though I speak/understand less than no French, I am completely in love with this song. The gentle guitar plucking, the soft vocal delivery...it's all just perfect. One of my favorites. I looked up a translation of the lyrics as well, and they're just as whimsical and delicate as the vocals and arrangement imply. 9/10
12) D'Arline - An interesting way to end the album. What we have here is a completely acoustic, demo-like backyard recording from Joy's iPhone. It reminds me of how they had a similarly lo-fi demo of "Marionette" on the Barton Hollow extended edition. The lyrics, though almost impossible to discern from the muffled vocals, are actually wonderful and beautiful, and painfully describe a situation that could be taken all too easily to represent the band as an entity, this album, and Joy and John Paul as individuals. Perhaps this song was a way of giving us a "live" performance from this album...something they knew was unlikely to happen in any other circumstance. 8/10
"Just so you know
You'll always be the only one
Always be the only one
D'Arline, what do I do now?
Can't live with you or without, but oh
That's how it goes
I could get over you
But please don't ask me to
Just so you know
You'll always be the only one
Even when you're not
You'll always be the only one
Even when you're gone"
What a perfectly fitting and yet fittingly dissonant way to end this angst-ridden, beautiful, eclectic, dark, emotional, and well, warring album.
on August 14, 2013
Standing in the shadow of Barton Hollow and a reputation for matchless live performances, The Civil Wars have made this a difficult album to review.
Without a doubt, Barton Hollow stirred a furor in fans of TCW, and the industry, as rapid as its rise to popularity and critical praise. To watch TCW live for many of us was to relive moments that hang endlessly in time, moments that cease to be only memories but a part of us that stirs back to the moment as if it were present. Listening to Barton Hollow and watching TCW perform live to me was to be a part of an experience. Like laying on beachside under the stars, breathing salty air, feeling the mist of the ocean lightly spraying, hearing the rustle of thistle grass, experiencing the smell of the sand mixing into the ocean, the breeze raising the hairs on your arm---the purity of experiencing these moments, knowing that they can never be relived quite the same as they are in that fleeting second, but also knowing that pure moment would be ingrained to relive and compare every subsequent star filled sky---these are the feelings Barton Hollow and a live TCW experience conjured in me, with Barton Hollow still conjuring those moments with each listen.
It is due to that that this album is difficult to rate. Sonically, musically, it is beautiful, in my opinion worthy of another Grammy. Emotionally, in light of what Barton Hollow was, it stands overshadowed. Many fans of TCW ache at the thought of the fleeting moment of their unique partnership, a Big Bang of sorts, coming to termination. It seems obvious that ache isn't something the fans alone share. It is easy to hear it on this album. There's a longing for rebuilding, for forgiveness, but a pensiveness about approaching it. Distraction abounds---John Paul's voice carrying with it a tenor of distance over the all-in presence of before, a sort of dutiful involvement, seemingly with only enough strength for the guitar; Joy seems to be reaching for the coy playfulness and elation from Barton Hollow, sacrificing emotion for volume. Tension behind the scenes is palpable. It is obvious that both attempt to reach backward in their own way for the past, John Paul with energy poured into the guitar, Joy raising her voice in hope the feelings follow, yet a gap remains in that reaching. I can't help but compare it to Barton Hollow in the same way I'd compare the same beautiful night experienced laying oceanside to one experienced driving in a car; both carry a beauty, but only can be experienced.
Yet, despite this, for those whose experience with TCW is more casual, for those hearing them for the first time, there is no sense of tension, no sense of longing or heaviness in the music for what was, no sense of fulfilling obligation. Instead, there is real, focused, beautiful music to be hear. This album, its strong tones of "what if?", is something everyone can relate to. These lyrics can cull emotions, memories, tears, reflection for anyone, even if the experience of TCW cannot stir with this album the same way it could with Barton Hollow. It is still an album that is strong, that is relatable, that will constantly be part of my rotation.
TCW should be proud of this album. Despite their professional and personal turmoil, they have produced something beautiful. It is only my hope that out of that pride and an obvious desire to reach for what once was, TCW is able to reconcile and rekindle the unique gift they have together. If not, this album, like Barton Hollow, is a gift I am thankful for.
on August 29, 2013
After the first album(s) I had high expectations... while i enjoyed the new album, it doesn't match the quality or intimacy of Barton's Hollow NOR of their live performances. I bought Barton's Hollow but prefer to play the Youtube.mp3 files from the live 'book store" type recordings.
The ongoing fight/battle/recess/seperation/whatever between the two of them has become old and distracting. I started out on Joy's side, but the more she talks, the more i'm willing to jump the Mason Dixon line...
I love some of the new songs, but leave it to others can go into detail.
on August 19, 2013
A lot of people will like this album if they are new to The Civil Wars. However, if you're a Civil Wars Enthusiast (if you will), you may find this good, but a bit disappointing.
Negatives: As stated by others, this album is full of Joy...almost too full. Also, this can go both ways, but there's a lot more music going on in the background on this album compared to Barton Hollow. Not as much of an accoustic, organic feel.
Positives: This music is still very much so The Civil Wars...just more "dressed up". The famous heavenly harmonies are still there. I stated that this album is Joy-heavy...but on some songs, that's a good thing.
"The One That Got Away"
"I Had Me A Girl"
"Same Old Same Old"
"Dust To Dust"
"From This Valley"
YES, all of those.
on August 16, 2013
I love this album, especially the song "Same Old Same Old". The music, the harmony and the words - it is so beautiful. It is poetry. This song is definitely a love song, even if they are breaking up. Joy Williams and John Paul White are so talented and sing and play with such perfect harmony and synergy - this CD is in my mind much more refined than the first. You feel the passion, the love and the hurt in these songs.
Their take on "Tell Mama" is so beautifully done and dramatically different from Etta James. Interesting isn't it that they would select this song to perform. I also LOVE the way they do "Disarm" with John Paul singing lead - it is hauntingly beautiful. Even the songs "Devils Backbone" and "From this Valley" are such an interesting take on gospel.
This album really hangs together with a wonderful flow and enough, but not too much, diversity in the selection of songs. The songs showcase their voices and their musical talent. Let's all hope that they stay together and find a way to work together so we don't miss out on such a great musical experience.
on March 7, 2016
This self-titled release follows up their very successful release "Barton Hollow". And this one it seems is largely overshadowed by it. It's a good album to be sure, but as it came when there was tension within in the duo, it feels like there is something missing. There also seems to be an effort to recapture that missing element. And in that respect I found I was left wanting. But all that said I do have my favorites here including, "From This Valley", "Devil's Backbone", "Oh Henry", "Sacred Heart"-sung entirely and beautifully-in French and the final track" D'Arline"
on September 4, 2013
My first thought when I heard it was WHAT HAPPENED? As in why aren't they singing together and harmonizing perfectly and were they even in the same room together when they recorded this??? I loved the Barton Hollow album and how perfectly their voices meshed. This album was a let down for me because it's too much Joy and not enough John Paul. I'm not sorry I bought it but it was not at all what I expected. I played Barton Hollow almost every single day for at least 6 months and still play it weekly. This new album has been played 3 times and I've had it a month ... and only played that much to give it a chance. It's okay but it sure isn't near the complete perfection of Barton Hollow.