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More is less
on 25 November 2013
Second albums are a notoriously risky business; and not just for the band. Purchasing the successor to a much loved album is a bit like returning to the restaurant which had once served The Best Meal Ever. It can only disappoint. The butter is too cold, the room is too hot, the thrice-cooked chips are limp, the waiter is having a bad day, and the bill has shifted from extravagance to exploitation.
I love the Civil Wars' first album 'Barton Hollow'. I'd defy anyone to not like it. The lusciously yearning, intertwining vocal talents of Joy Williams and John Paul White soar over sparse raw acoustic instrumentation. The effect is at times heart-achingly beautiful, at times visceral: grabbing you by the innards and hurling you down to Nashville.
Simplicity is its strength. In many of the songs the only other voice is that of a steel string guitar. The recipe is perfect: it's a steaming great bucket of bitter-sweet, finger-pickin goodness.
So it was with some trepidation that I started listening to this new offering; longing for that perfect balance of 'the same' and 'different'. Some of 'the same' is here - soaring voices, acoustic guitar, brooding lyrics. But the 'different' is the wrong flavour of different. They add instruments, a precocious screeching electric guitar unnecessarily opening 'I had me a girl'. Even, unforgivably, a drum machine intruding on 'Dust to Dust'. It feels overproduced and loses intensity, creating a sense that more is sometimes less.
It's less consistent as an album too - more consciously playing with styles and ideas. On 'Sacred heart', Williams sings in French. Rather than accentuating her breathy come-hither vocals it tips into parody and just makes me giggle. 'From this valley' is overly jaunty and jars with the rest of the album.
Songs like 'Eavesdrop', 'Devil's backbone' and 'Tell Mamma' are on more solid ground. But... And here it's hard not to be influenced by the knowledge that Williams and White stopped touring after the first album due to "irreconcilable difference of ambition". Almost unconsciously I have made sense of this by construing her as the over ambitious pushy one and him as an easy going family man. This caricature is reinforced by the dominance of her voice on the album. White is barely audible in those three tracks. It creates an emotional imbalance - less vocal intertwining and more spotlight seeking whining. I've taken his side in the dispute. More Joy gives me less.
This is probably why it's the few songs where he gets equal billing that are my favourites: the haunting, stripped back cover of 'Disarm' and the strong opening track 'The one that got away' which plays on the (now somewhat marred) emotional connection between them.
The albums ends with 'D'Arline'. Hushed intimacy and staccato guitar bring those voices back to the fore. Recorded on a mobile phone; it's a hymn to simplicity and the glories of the past.
Overall, it isn't that it's bad. It's just that the first meal was so damn good.