With the advent of Mumford & Sons and that song by The Lumineers there is an appetite and an opening for folk/roots music to finally jostle for position in the UK as a viable contender across a music landscape that has been filled only with X Factor alumni and the global superstars pushed through the major record labels.
The Civil Wars deliver their follow up to 2011’s ‘Barton Hollow’ with a second album that is refreshingly authentic and draws on downbeat country and Americana roots. The overall mood of the album is intimate, enhanced by the Gram Parsons / Emmylou Harris style juxtaposition of Joy Williams and John Paul White’s voices. She has a clear tone, he has a rasp – together it meshes and elevates the storytelling to a conversation beyond a simple duet.
Covers of Etta James’ ‘Tell Mama’ and the Smashing Pumpkins song ‘Disarm’ are both wistful and elegant arrangements that show a restraint that is uniquely beautiful, allowing a very real intensity to form and give both songs a new outlook. Also on display throughout the album is a talent for musical layering and harmony.
The album veers from narrative to self-reflection – ‘Dust to Dust’ and ‘Same Old Same Old’ represent The Civil Wars’ storytelling at it’s best with the former described by Williams as ‘an anthem for the lonely’ and the latter a conversation between a couple trying to fix their broken relationship.
The track ‘Sacred Heart’ – written in Paris and sung in French – is less successful and sounds a little pedestrian next to the spit and grit of some of the other tracks – perhaps in an album where storytelling is so central, to drop into another language uproots the listeners journey too much.
However there is much on this album to admire and sitting prettily alongside the ballads of double-crossing and damage are the more uptempo roots songs such as ‘Oh Henry’, which sees Joy talking to her philandering man; ‘Oh Henry, you’ve got something to tell me!’ she cries in a classic country chorus.
Another standout track is ‘I Had Me A Girl’ which sees John Paul take central stage – his down and dirty tones are underused on this album and when in full effect amply represent the heritage and soul of Americana. It’s like traveling to an old world via the new world – but it’s certainly worth the trip.
‘THE CIVIL WARS’ will be released on August 6th 2013 through Columbia Records.
Review by Maya Fire, songwriter and lead singer of Wax on Water.