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.
This is OK. Its only OK. Barton Hollow was magnificent.
The Civil Wars are far greater than the sum of their parts. This album is made up of mainly decent songs sung by two individuals, sometimes at the same time. I wonder if they were even in the studio together much of the time. Barton Hollow on the other hand was two voices making sublime magic together.
Both are decent singers, but there are a thousand and one decent singers on the planet. The only worthwhile exception on this album, to my ear, is the haunting Disarm, which does sound like a proper duet.
I sincerely wish that Joy and John Paul gather their respective toys from outside the pram and go back to working together making wonderful music, rather than just cashing in on their previous efforts. Either that or decide they cannot work together and chuck the whole thing in.
If you looking for one Civil Wars album to buy, this isn't it. If you already have Barton Hollow, it may be better to remember them that way.
I agree with the favourable reviews already here - this is a very good album. I hadn't heard any of The Civil Wars' music until now and am very impressed.
There is a lot of quite-good-but-not-brilliant Country/Americana around, and this stands out from the crowd for two reasons, I think. The first is the quality of the songwriting. These are largely songs on the age-worn themes of love and loss, but they have an unusual lyrical depth and are musically very good with a great variety, singable melodies and, I suspect, a lasting quality.
The second reason is the exceptional quality of the singing. Both Joy Williams and John Paul White have very good voices which contrast rather and combine wonderfully. They can both really belt out a tune when needed, but also sing the quiet, tender passages with real feeling and exceptional skill. It reminded me slightly of the best moments of the Robert Plant/Alison Krauss collaboration. The production is admirably restrained and doesn't immerse the material in slick gloss, which allows the quality of the singers and their songs to really shine.
I'll be getting hold of Barton Hollow very soon on the strength of this. I warmly recommend this album - it's a bit of real class, I think.
It appears following the massive success of their debut "Barton Hollow" the Civil Wars decided to take their name at face value and commence an outbreak of raging hostilities. Their European tour was cancelled just about as they were to perform in Cardiff (the unused tickets are a souvenir) due to "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition". Watch the video for the new single "The one that got away" and it clear that for Joy Williams and John Paul White the one place they don't want to be is with each other.
It is not essential of course that musicians like each other to make music. Fleetwood Mac, Oasis, Metallica and the Eagles are examples of bands in states of personal dysfunction that have made great records. But the Civil Wars persona went deeper, creating a stage act based on what appeared to be a platonic friendship that hinted at an even deeper chemistry. As it stands there is now no hiding from the fact that this new album is the musical equivalent of strained peace talks that have completely collapsed. What is the impact on the music?
"The Civil Wars" is a harder and darker album than its predecessor, although not a radical departure from that ethic. There were times on "Barton Hollow" that the sweetness threatened to engulf so this is not necessarily a bad thing. The album starts with the pounding "One who got away" a slice of almost Buckingham/Nicks drama underpinned by a telling story and ending with a fierce band work out. With Williams vocal dominating the lyrics tell it like is "Oh I wish I'D never seen your face/I wish you were the one/Wish you were the one who got away". Next up "I had a girl" is a piece of hard rocking swampy blues with White hinting a much tougher approach that could follow if solo status beckons. "Oh Henry" later in the album reinforces this. Alternatively tracks like "Same old, same old" tread familiar ground as an elegant if uninspired ballad. Much better is the Police sound-alike "Dust to dust" with lovely understated vocals by both musicians and the country swing of "From the valley". The quiet/loud dynamics of "Devils Backbone" is a highlight, which brings together all the elements that worked so well on "Barton Hollow". The Civil Wars have always performed excellent covers and their version of the Smashing Pumpkins "Disarm" may lack the drama of the original but makes up for it with the tenderest vocal performances on the album. They deconstruct Billy Corgan's song of parental angst down to the beauty of simmering gentle acoustics and it works. On the two concluding tracks we have the Civil Wars of old with Sacred Heart" sweetly sung in French by Joy Williams and the gorgeous duet of D'Arline" to bring it all to a conclusion.
In the last analysis The Civil Wars have effectively reprised a harder version of the winning formula on their massively successful debut. On balance it works again and this is an excellent album that does feel more consistent if less immediately appealing. It does however beg the question that if all was well in the ranks of the Civil Wars where they go next without essentially repeating themselves. Sadly we shall not find out the answer since it appears that this is probably the last outing from the Civil Wars as a performing band and solo careers beckon. As such it is a fitting epitaph to a band who made their mark and whose music will endure even if they are not performing it together.
Whilst country music has become more mainstream in the last couple of decades with the increase in alternative Country, with the genre crossing over into pop and rock mainstream, folk music hasn't had quite the same success. Mumford and Sons have made a great start with their couple of albums thus far and now, joining the fray, come The Civil Wars. Their debut album, "Barton Hollow", won them Grammy Awards in both folk and country categories at the 2012 Grammy Awards and a collaboration with the aforementioned Taylor Swift won them another in 2013. In addition, their debut album hit the top of Billboard's Folk Albums chart and reached the Top 10 of the main Billboard albums chart, so this second album has a lot to live up to. Given that the pair went on hiatus between albums, essentially having a civil war of their own, the progress towards this second album has been as difficult as the cliché suggests.
"The Civil Wars" isn't a bad album, but it has a rather lacklustre feeling to it. There are a couple of decent moments, but nothing that really stands out and grabs you. It sounds as if the civil war between the duo has resulted in a distance between them which does show on the album as a whole. There are signs that suggest it could have been a better album with a little more effort, but as it stands, it's 12 tracks and 43 minutes of nothing special and it certainly won't be one I'm likely to reach for in the future.
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This album is INCREDIBLE! Which is why it's such a shame that The Civil Wars have broken up, or are at least on a break. This album is powerful and haunting. There voices blend perfectly and on this album, unlike the last, there is a lot more production, which is good, because it adds a different sound, which means that it's not a clone of the debut, Barton Hollow. My favourite tracks are: Dust To Dust- This song grows on you. It eventually becomes addictive. It's slow, haunting but warm. Beautiful lyrics. Eavesdrop- This is one of the songs that have more prominent production. Starts slow and acoustic-y, the middle is very built-up then it ends slowly again. From This Valley- Is actually about Jesus, something I didn't pick up at first. Beautiful lyrics, simple melody and the vocals are phenomenal. Devils Backbone- I love how they do this 'Southern Gothic' vibe! It's really amazing and reminds me of a execution in a tiny desert town. But I really do love all of them. This duo is so good and there have been rave reviews from people who like all kinds of music- from R&B to Country, which shows how good they are. Recommend.
I was a bit apprehensive about this album as Barton Hallow was such an amazing album and a lot to live up to. I was definitely not disappointed. The songwriting on this is some of the best I've come across. There is more of a band vibe rather than a duo vibe that I personally really like. Not just 'two singers and a guitar' this time, a lot more full band songs. The first single 'The One That Got Away' has one let down. It is mainly Joy singing with JP adding some backing vocals, instead of the trademark harmonies and bouncing lines off one another that can be found on songs like 'Same Old Same Old' and 'From This Valley'. Maybe the biggest let down is the lack of 'new' material as such. Most of the songs where written from 2010 to 2012, before the hiatus, and a lot of them have been performed live on numerous occasions. This may not bode well for any come back. As a huge fan I hope to see them writing, performing and touring together in the, hopefully, near future.