Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Saying Goodbye: The Civil Wars

Joy Williams & John Paul White of The Civil Wars
Nothing reveals the volatility of the music business more than the early break up of a band. In the case of the duo known as The Civil Wars made up of John Paul White and Joy Williams, their recent split is also a loss to the music world. The duo started out with great promise in 2009, but has quickly come to an end after four years of considerable success that included two Grammy awards in 2012. When I reviewed Barton Hollow, the band's debut album in 2011, I thought it was one of the strongest independent releases of the year. Ironically, one of the best songs on that album, "Forget Me Not," offered up the hope "Let's write a song for us and sing until we're old and gray." Alas, those hopes were dashed when the group cancelled a European tour last winter citing "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition."
So the duo's second self-titled album, released this past August 6th, is as much an epitaph to an end as it is indicative of how The Civil Wars grew as a duo, musically speaking. Nevertheless it's hard not to think about the group's break-up in the context of this record, even though most of these songs were written in 2012 at the height of their success. So it’s difficult to hear these tunes and not interpret them through the prism of the band's split. The album opens with a meaningful track that oozes regret: “Oh I wish that I could go back in time...I wish you were the one that got away." It's a strong performance for Williams, as is most of her work on this disc. As vocalists, the pair carry a lot of emotional weight in their voices, even more so on this album than on Barton Hollow. There's a self-assurance on The Civil Wars that the other one lacked to some degree particularly on “I Had Me A Girl”, a heavy sounding blues. Fortunately it's followed up by the intimate “Same Old Same Old,” with lyrics that offer little hope for a fading relationship ("I want to leave you, I want to lose us, I wanna give up but I won't...but if you think that I can stay in the same old, same old, well I don't").

The beauty of the Civil Wars’s music has always been the strong male/female pulse of their songs. Williams sings a line followed by White's response then the two double on a refrain. It's beautifully arranged and best heard on "Dust to Dust," released as the first single off the record. White sings "You're like a mirror, reflecting me," Williams responds, "It takes one to know one, so take it from me, you've been lonely...we've been lonely too long." But all is not doom and gloom for the pair with the inclusion of a great gospel-oriented song, “From This Valley”. Written in 2010, it was first heard on a collection of contemporary Gospel songs called, Mercyland: Hymns For the Rest of Us.  I prefer that first version because it's a little more buoyant and recorded when times were much better for the duo. But this one stills wins me over.

The Civil Wars features a rather curious version of the great R&B tune, “Tell Mama,” recorded by Etta James in the late Sixties. That version featured the dramatic soul performance of James that became her trademark. The Civil Wars turn it into a country ballad, miles away from James’s great single. While I admire the attempt to give the song some introspection, it’s the least successful track on the album. “Tell Mama” simply doesn’t capture the gritty, sexual charge of the original. And while the Civil Wars have charmed us with great covers of Michael Jackson and Leonard Cohen in the past, this one fails to excite.

Nevertheless, The Civil Wars debuted at Number 1 on the Billboard charts shortly after its release selling a reported 116,000 copies in the first week. Clearly the duo reached and connected with the audience they so richly deserved. Pity, they couldn’t keep it together long enough to share the wealth and the love between them.

John Corcelli is a music critic, broadcast/producer, musician and member of the Festival Wind Orchestra.

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