It's been a tumultuous time for The Civil Wars, who rose to stardom on the strength of their fantastic, Grammy-winning debut album Barton Hollow. They toured the album relentlessly, made countless promotional appearances, and performed on VH1 Unplugged. Joy Williams gave birth to her first child. They initiated work on a follow-up, booked more tour dates, announced plans to release the Unplugged performance exclusively through iTunes, and then things went pear-shaped.
A statement was released indicating there were tensions within the Civil Wars camp, although it wasn't specified if these were issues between Williams and John Paul White, issues with the band their management or label, all of the above, or something else entirely. Plans for the follow-up were put on hold and even the already recorded Unplugged set had its release date pushed back three months. We still don't have many explanations and the future is murky but Unplugged is finally here and was worth the wait.
The highlight of this set is the phenomenal cover of a favorite song of mine and I don't mean their now famous cover of Micael Jackson's "Billie Jean" (although that is also on Unplugged and I do quite like it). I was immediately intrigued when I learned they covered "Sour Times" by Portishead and their performance is fucking brilliant. Williams works a little Beth Gibbons homage in one passage of her vocal and while she doesn't summon or sustain Gibbons' chilly weirdness, she still gives us plenty. White is also excellent on his lead verse and the harmonies are exquisite, radiating longing, ache, and fire.
Most of the Barton Hollow songs translate well to a single guitar, two-voice arrangement. "Poison & Wine" is as poignant and devastating as ever and the haunting beauty of "20 Years" transfers from the record to the stage with ease and grace. These are two professional vocalists whose voices will never sound as good apart as they do together. That professionalism keeps "Barton Hollow" afloat but this acoustic version lacks the spark and swagger of the studio version. The vocals are great but the absent percussion is noticeable.
The aforementioned "Billie Jean" closes the set and I get why it became a fan favorite. They reinvent this MJ classic and while nothing will ever replace the iconic original, it's a great song that holds up well with a completely different arrangement.
We don't know what the future holds for The Civil Wars but the VH1 Unplugged is one more reminder of how exceptional this first chapter was. It would be a real shame if there isn't more.