Album review: The Civil Wars, “The Civil Wars”By Dylan Owens | August 5th, 2013 | 1 Comment »
Most of the ink spilled over the Civil Wars since last NovemberÂ has been in reaction to a note they posted on their Facebook page. Written after an abrupt cancellation of the remainder of their tour dates, the post was essentially a Dear John letter for the band. They wouldn’t be playing anymore in 2012, the note said, a sudden disbanding they owed to “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.”
The sole glimmer of hope came in the bit before the postscript, acknowledging the possibility of new music in 2013. In light of the news, though, this seemed like a consolation prize and unlikely to boot, the sort of “we can be friends” thing that couples say to lessen the blow of separation. With that, they signed off as Joy Williams and John Paul Whiteâ€”not the Civil Warsâ€”and fans were left wondering if they’d ever see the two billed together again.
Halfway through 2013, the band has made good on their word. The Civil Wars haven’t performed live since their post heard round the world. But more on point, they’ve done the once unthinkable and rolled out a follow-up to 2011′s “Barton Hollow.”
Where the band’s debut often sounded precious and whisper-quiet, “The Civil Wars” comes on strong. There’s more instrumentation on the albumâ€”many songs can’t be faithfully reproduced by Williams and White aloneâ€”and stronger vocal parts for the duo’s formidable pipes, which are given due prominence. It’s a move that’s immediately evident in the album’s lead-off single, “The One That Got Away,” but more so in “I Had Me a Girl,” a lusty and raucous country rock ballad.
While Williams and White’s voices blend as phenomenally as ever on the album, there’s a distinct imbalance in their occurrence. White’s solos here are few and far between; it sounds as if he’s contented with harmonies through most of the album. It’s a shame, obviously, because when it does peek out, like on “I Had Me a Girl” and Smashing Pumpkins cover “Disarm,” its power is undeniable. Chalk it up to “differences of ambition,” I suppose.
It’s easy to read into the lyrics on the album in the harsh light of that public schism, too; the front-half is loaded with feud fodder. Lines like “I wish you were the one that got away,” “Let me in the wall / you’ve built around / we can light a match / and burn it down” (“Dust To Dust”) and “I don’t want to fight / but I’ll fight with you if I have to” can be read to give and take hope from fans waiting for them to call their hiatus off and get back on the road. That last lyric, from “Same Old Same Old”, is about “the ache of monogamy,” William maintainsâ€”both she and White are married to other peopleâ€”but that hardly means it isn’t about their relationship with one another.
Their major label debut, “The Civil Wars” is cleaner, crisper and stronger than their debut, but not always better. “Eavesdrop” is the hokiest Civil Wars song to date and lacks the bite found elsewhere in the album, and the second half leans heavily on Williams and feels unbalanced as a result. But the moments of harmonic bliss and tight musicianship outweight the record’s foibles. Though conceived in a house divided, “The Civil Wars” stands well on its own.
Dylan Owens is Reverbâ€™s indie and bluegrass blogger. You can read more from him in Relix magazineÂ and the comment sections ofÂ WORLDSTARHIPHOP.