The Grammy-winning duo The Civil Wars took the world by storm with their timeless debut Barton Hollow only to succumb to stresses and pressures that have prematurely ended so many great artists. Their eponymous sophomore effort is, in essence, a posthumous effort with neither John Paul White or Joy Williams speaking to one another.
Many critics and fans will listen for clues as to what tore these two apart and you can find them if you want but these songs likely have nothing to do with the discord that caused their abrupt end. What is clear is this isn't the album White and Williams would have released had they remained active and functional to the end of its creation. That's not to say there is an unfinished quality to the sound; producer Charlie Peacock saw to that. These sound like Civil Wars songs but we have two tracks predating Barton Hollow and two covers. It's hard to believe these songs wouldn't have been candidates for iTunes exclusive downloads or bonus tracks on a deluxe edition of the record they would have eventually made rather than comprising 1/3 of the album proper. If the two had continued generating ideas and writing, how many other songs on this record might have been replaced by what came later? We'll never know.
The best moments here are emotionally raw, powerful, aching, and true- their specialty. The harmonies are gorgeous, the music mostly spare, everything direct. The continuity in sound and passion in most of the performances helps make this a seamless listen even if it doesn't feel complete. This is made the more obvious by the stronger material being found in the album's first half.
"The One That Got Away" tells of regret with a harder edge than many tracks from Barton, with electric guitar punctuating the song. White and Williams exchange lead lines but the force multiplies exponentially when their voices join.
"Same Old Same Old" is the devastating tale of hearts breaking because a relationship has died before the love did. The painful inevitability of the parting aches in the harmonies and the spaces in between with mournful violin wailing in the background.
If "The One That Got Away" is regret for a love that never happened and "Same Old Same Old" is for a love that has lost its place, "Dust To Dust" is for the space in between: loneliness. It's a delicate song with quiet, electronic production and sparse musical accouterments. The hushed leads and harmonies are just as effective as the dramatic swells heard elsewhere on the record. The same can't be said for their cover of Etta James' classic "Tell Mama." To their credit -- particularly Williams -- they didn't try to recapture the same sass and swagger of the original as no one will ever hold a candle to the immortal James. Unfortunately, hush and quiet feels more like a sedative than artistic restraint.
Williams seems the stronger vocal presence on the record but White finds his places and "Eavesdrop" is a song he shines on along with "I Had A Girl." The latter is as close to a rocker as The Civil Wars are likely to record. "Eavesdrop" opens with Williams singing lead and a quieter approach but the song builds when White steps forward and she sings counter to him. The mandolin accents in the background are another lovely touch to a moving song.
Their Barton Hollow live shows featured several covers that became staples of the shows and fan favorites, notably their cover of The Smashing Pumpkins masterpiece "Disarm." We get a studio version of that here and while I contend this would have been better as a bonus cut, it's great to have this version alongside the live one they recorded for Unplugged (exclusively through iTunes). I love Smashing Pumpkins but The Civil Wars version confirms what most of us suspected: a great song becomes all the more special when sung by pleasing vocalists.
It would be a shame if The Civil Wars is the last word not because it's a poor album but because it hints at great work left on the table. If this proves to be their final salvo, they've bolstered their legacy with another handful of strong songs and beautiful performances. Everything we loved about them the first time is present but the record isn't as deep as its predecessor and not as deep as it could have been. It should be more and yet it's more than enough.