Album review of The Civil Wars’ eponymous album

The Civil Wars
The Civil Wars
Sensibility/Columbia (CD)
*****

By Bruce Sylvester

With its pristine vestiges of 19th-century parlor balladry, The Civil Wars’ debut “Barton Hollow” deserved its Grammys. Musically speaking, John Paul White and Joy Williams sounded like a match made in heaven. Sadly, by the time of this follow-up, internal disharmony has wracked the duo.

The Civil Wars Again producing the duo, Charlie Peacock at times forgoes minimalist delicacy and instead creates a turbulent backup that parallels the duo’s unrest. Whereas on “Barton Hollow” they sang to each other, “The right one came along,” now Williams laments, “I wish you were the one that got away.” “Eavesdrop” could be interpreted as using a love affair as a metaphor for a troubled artistic relationship. Aching with conflict between passion and perdition, “Devil’s Backbone” reflects Williams’s origins in Christian music as she begs God for help after falling for a man on the run (a time-honored storyline). On “From The Valley,” quavering vocals recall pre-1960 country singing with dashes of counterpoint amid the harmonies.

Two tracks aren’t from their pens. “Disarm” has moments of primeval simplicity in contrast to Smashing Pumpkins’ orchestral original.   As for whispered “Tell Mama” (so gutsy in Etta James’ and then Janis Joplin’s hands), Williams tries a little tenderness.
The duo’s joint statement on a canceled tour spoke of “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.” Is this CD their swan song?

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