The Civil Wars

Columbia/Sensibility Records 8883 73850 2
CD
2013

Music

Sound

by John Crossett | October 6, 2013

hat do you get when you cross a reformed Christian pop singer with a wanna-be-but-couldn’t-quite-make-it rocker in, of all places, Nashville? In the case of The Civil Wars, you get a whole that is an order of magnitude greater than the sum of the parts. Joy Williams and John Paul White combined a few years ago to create a unique-sounding duo that draws on many musical sources for inspiration but still manages to sound original. Their harmonies are exquisite, their music a special blending of pop, rock, country, folk and bluegrass, and their sound a product of their collective vision and creativity. This self-titled album -- their second -- follows in the footsteps of their 2011 release and surprising hit, Barton Hollow. The Civil Wars is chock-full of interesting songs about relationships that work, don’t work, or just kind of exist, but all of the songs have one thing in common: angst, a deep, heartfelt angst that permeates each number. I’ve never heard a group that can sustain the feeling of rock-bottomness, the feeling that they're so low that the only way up is down, as consistently as The Civil Wars, yet they do so while never allowing your attention to wander.

The group’s name -- The Civil Wars -- is apropos. The latest scuttlebutt has it that Williams and White are barely on speaking terms, so it's especially amazing that two people who would seem to have such trouble communicating with each other can produce songs that speak so clearly. Listen to "The One That Got Away," where Williams sings, "I never meant to get us in this deep / I never meant for this to mean a thing / I wish you were the one who got away." Or "Same Old Same Old," where White and Williams trade verses: "I wanna leave you / I want to lose us / I wanna give up." The pathos just drips off each syllable, and when those voices blend in harmony the music soars to heights seldom heard.

The sound of The Civil Wars is almost as impressive as the music. The album was produced by Charlie Peacock (with one song, "I Had Me A Girl," produced by Rick Rubin) and mastered by the great Bob Ludwig at his Gateway Mastering Studios. Thanks to their efforts, this album is among the best-sounding recent commercial efforts I’ve heard. The two voices, the centerpiece of this album, are clear, crisp and three-dimensional. Most songs have fairly minimal instrumentation, allowing the tone and timbre of each instrument to shine. Dynamics, always a bugaboo with today’s high-compression music, are fairly complete. You hear audible differences between soft and loud, the varying volumes of Williams' and White's voices conveying the message as directly as the lyrics.

We can only hope that somehow, some way, Williams and White manage to patch things up enough to continue to release albums like this one. It would be a real shame if they allowed their differences to stifle such exquisite musical craftsmanship.

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