The Civil Wars
Harmonies > Twang. Originally published on Pop ‘stache:
Grammy Award-winning folk-country duo The Civil Wars will release its self-titled sophomore studio album on August 6. The album sounds warm and their voices lead the show, defining a contemporary mixture of indie-folk and country.
The duo, with its intimate lyrics and impassioned harmonies (listen: “From This Valley”), is possibly one of the most accessible country acts of the decade so far. Scouted out by Adele in 2009, The Civil Wars joined her on both American and UK tours shortly after. They collaborated with Taylor Swift on a track for The Hunger Games’ soundtrack and have appeared as musical guests on prominent late night talk shows since meeting in 2008 at a Nashville musician writer’s workshop.
However, with directly opposite songwriting styles, members John Paul White and Joy Williams can’t seem to escape from the theme that their band name implies; they declared a civil war with each other in November of 2012, announcing a hiatus due to differences in personal ambition. Williams and White have reportedly not spoken since, Williams commenting only minimally about the situation: “This is my life, and my life is on this album. And if you want to know what happened to the band, listen to the album.”
Talk about an (un)intentional promotional opportunity—a Google search of the band’s name will hand one headline after headline of juicy intrigue revolving the fall-out. The Civil Wars’ potentially short-lived existence is unfortunate in respect to its rapid rise to fame and the international fanbase that its recognition has accumulated; wasted potential looks good on nobody. What is it about the music that makes this hiatus particularly unfortunate, then?
The Civil Wars’ sound celebrates the duo’s Nashville origins, nurturing each other’s shared vocal dynamics and well-balanced dualisms. Listening for their complimentary perfection is consistently rewarding, while their musical style remains fresh and unconstrained. Williams places her previous pop recordings (“Sunny Day”) on hold for a deeper, homegrown sound in her venture with White.
The Civil Wars continues what Barton Hollow (2011) began: crafting a sound that unsuspectingly oscillates between traditional country and unique, often ominous tonal energies. “Dust to Dust” switches between Williams, White, and their collective harmonies in the album’s gentlest soft-rock ballad—channeling the chemistry of Angus and Julia Stone and the lonely visages to which people all too often surrender.
The unexpected French song “Sacred Heart” graces us with simplicity and indulges our optimistic ignorance of the song’s meaning, leaving those without translating abilities the glory to imagine. Finally, a third acoustic folk ballad, “Disarm,” a cover and personalized tribute to The Smashing Pumpkins, follows the complimentary beauty of the 2011 Elliott Smith cover, “Between The Bars.”
Opening track “The One That Got Away” explores a powerful melancholy as Williams sings about wishing a serious relationship had stayed at a fresh and passionate distance. It opens the album with a sour taste for happy lovers and a familiar consolation for heartbroken singles. The subject of introspective struggles—civil wars—that exist within people continues in “Same Old Same Old,” a poignant story of leaving a partner you love and staying true to your pursuit of all things new.
The Civil Wars is rooted in Southern sounds and its music is an unavoidable reflection of this. Isolating the large metropolitan populations with distaste for that “country twang” are songs like “From This Valley” and “Oh Henry,” which extend with prolonged vocal dissonance and homogenous folk guitar strumming. Although the band carries many distinguishable qualities, its audiences will remain in the world of country, as the genre is more specific than many musicians will allow themselves to admit. For the sake of a spin on country that feels fresh has already proven itself beloved, let’s hope that The Civil Wars reconcile their differences in pursuit of co-piloted, thematic remedies for the lonely and broken hearted.