The Civil Wars, comprised of singer songwriter team of Joy Williams and John Paul White,
rose to fame in 2011 with the critical and commercial success of their debut album Barton Hollow. It displayed the duo's stunning voices as they traded lines back and forth or harmonised over well-written country and folk songs. After selling over half a million copies and earning themselves two Grammy awards for Barton Hollow, the group suddenly seemed to be on the verge of dissolution, cancelling a European tour due to “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.” whilst also claiming there are not on speaking terms, putting the group on hiatus. Still, despite lacking a willingness to communicate, the duo have managed to return with their self-titled second album.
The album starts off with rock 'n' roll vitriol and anger on The One That Got Away as fuzzy, crackling electric guitars filling out their sound with more of a stomp than anything heard on their first album. The distortion continues with the fuzzy blues rock of I Had Me A Girl, accompanied by a thudding drumbeat, the kind of track that is made for a sleazy bar in the American South, but the record gets a bit softer from there.
Whilst inter-band conflicts have worked wonders for other groups like The Beatles or Fleetwood Mac, here it seems to have stifled the duo, as the album they've put together is not as consistent as Barton Hollow, even the delivery which would see them often trading lines and harmonising now sees one them taking the lead more often than not. Tracks like Same Old Same Old, well, sound just like that, veering into the middle of the road territory that popular country music often can, and it isn't the only offender on the album. They try to mix things up with a cover of The Smashing Pumpkins' Disarm, which is pleasant enough, but doesn't have the same motion and drama of the original, which is a shame as their cover of Leonard Cohen's Dance Me to the End of Love was a great choice as the ending to their first album.
There are high points though, like the build up that ends Eavesdrop, as Williams earnestly repeats 'Just hold me' as a guitar strums powerfully, but ends to soon. Devil's Backbone is another highlight, a dark country tale of misplaced love, 'Oh Lord, Oh Lord/ What Have I done?/I've fallen in love with a man on the run' ending with a stunning a capella outro. Those voices themselves, which are still amazing whether singing in hushed tones or soaring, but the tension between them isn't the same, despite or because of the strains around the records production. Here, the duo have allowed for the whole scope a studio can bring, bringing in a large ensemble of backing musicians, but it all feels unnecessarily distracting, taking away from the group's talents. It comes across as over-blown, filling out their sound with a full band has taken away from the more personal feel at the centre of Barton Hollow. The album as a whole feels lighter as a result, never grabbing your attention in the same way despite some stand-out moments.
Originally posted on figure8magazine.co.uk.