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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.
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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.
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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.
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on 5 October 2013
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.
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on 25 August 2013
The second album from The Civil Wars, a Nashville duo composed of John Paul White and Joy Williams, is one of the best music releases of 2013 in my opinion. I have owned their first album, Barton Hollow, since 2011 and I love their music. It is a blend of country and Americana with a unique twist. The first album is quite different to this second album: there is a darker, more melancholic sound here. My favourite songs on this album are "The One that Got Away" (listening for the first time gave me goosebumps) and, in complete contrast, the cheerful "From This Valley". Most of the songs are dark and haunting, with lyrics which tell of lost love and troubled minds.

As other people have commented, Joy's vocals feature more heavily on this album than they do in the Barton Hollow tracks. I think Joy Williams is a fantastic vocal artist but I like the Barton Hollow tracks where they both sing and it is like they are having a conversation with each other in the lyrics.

One of the reasons why I like The Civil Wars's music so much is because they put so much emotion into it. It is raw and real and beautiful. I hope very much that Joy and John can resolve the problems between them. Otherwise, it is a big loss for the Americana music scene. I would love to see them play live. From watching their videos on YouTube, they have an amazing chemistry between them. Let's hope they reconcile their differences and get back to making music together. In the meantime, enjoy this stunning album!
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on 2 October 2013
They may not be ' Civil ' any longer ??? ' but while they were,they really were something very special. I had never heard of them before ( probably because I'm not, or ever will be a ' Country fan ' ) but I heard ' Billy Jean ' and was amazed. This is one of those ( for me anyway ) very rare songs where everything works to perfection, the title, the lyrics, the music, and the harmony, ( and the remarkable voices of Joy Williams and John Paul ).

I bought and downloaded both Albums, this one and ' Barton Hollow ' and considering I'm not a 'Country' fan I have to say I'm very glad I did, I have been listening a lot to both and they are excellent. In my opinion ' The Civil Wars ' are up there with the best, their harmonies are ' magical '.

Kind regards Utopian9
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on 16 August 2013
The civil wars are an amazing duo and with all the speculated problems that have arisen between the two it clearly shows in their work and their writing. This album appears much darker than their excellent début, but it is real and heartfelt and the songs are sung beautifully. They have taken previously recorded songs and put them onto this album, for example oh henry and from this valley, but nevertheless these are still brilliant songs.
Joy does have the majority of the vocals, but John Paul still has his moments and when they both come together their power and music is enough to move just about anybody.
This is personally one of the best albums ive heard so far and has been on repeat everyday since I myself bought it on the release date, there are songs on this album that are just so meaningful and wonderful to listen to that it would seem impossible to become bored with.
I do hope they solve their issues and reunite, if they dont then it will be such a shame as these two are the best country folk duo to come about in many years.
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on 16 November 2014
Just utterly brilliant duo. Just do not know how they manage to mix two completely different voices and sounds and yet give their sound that magic, but they do! For me one of the greatest duos around. I am gutted they will no longer be singing together. Fantastic album. Just utterly brilliant.
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on 28 August 2013
Loved Barton Hollow and this is even better. The vibe is the same - kind of Southern country rock - and their unmistakable harmonies still soar with tales of love and heartbreak, but the arrangements and orchestration are fuller and more weighty somehow.It's not overproduced but has more the feel of a studio album than Barton Hollow did for me - I always felt I was right there with them singing out in the Midwest somewhere! I can't stop playing this album :-)
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on 6 August 2013
I was extremely scared of this release.
I found out about the civil wars not that long ago and I got by just fine with their earlier releases, a rushed cd would damage their image in my opinion.

This cd sounds just like their previous releases but there are some changes.
You can hear Joy attempting to sing in French at the track before last which sounds just fine to my untrained ears but was quite unexpected. It's the full song in French unlike their previous song c'est la mort which was only the chorus

The songs sound just like their previous releases to me so I am very happy that they decided to work on their differences.

As a sidenote: there are plenty of religious references through several songs on this album, which isn't that surprising considering Joy released a Christian album before the civil wars was created.
While the single was ok I find other songs on this album to be better, however they probably released that single for marketing reasons(plenty of fans believed that they were having an affair of some sort, a song about the one that got away would get more attention than any other song, regardless of how much better other songs were.)
So go buy this album if you liked their previous stuff and don't mind hearing about the lord from time to time. Go check it out in Spotify if you are having doubts, skip this if you hated their previous cds
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