Review by Clare Knight
I have been eagerly awaiting the second album from hugely popular country/blues duo, The Civil Wars. As you may know from my previous posts on the band, I narrowly missed out on seeing them live in London when they cancelled the tour due to ‘internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition’. I don’t think anyone is really sure what that meant exactly and with the news of a second album coming out, I was hoping that a tour would follow to support it. But alas, it appears to be an album that was written whilst they were touring (and probably due to contracts and legal obligations they had to release it). After watching and reading interviews with one or other of the duo (mostly Joy Williams) it appears that they are currently not talking. So there goes hope for a tour and seeing them perform live!
However, let us put all of that aside and focus on the music that was created by these talented musicians in their self-titled second album. The first single from the album received positive feedback from fans and critics alike, myself included. As a whole, the album is different enough from Barton Hollow so that it isn’t stale but similar enough so that die hard fans won’t freak out the way people did when Bob Dylan went electric! This album definitely utilises electric guitar and gritty guitar tones along with more slide guitar playing, which personally I love to hear. Stand out tracks for this style were I Had Me a Girl and Devil’s Backbone, which at points, had sounds reminiscent of The Black Keys. It seems like Joy Williams has taken on more of a lead vocal role on this album with John Paul White concentrating more on harmonising on the majority of the songs. I like this because we get to hear more of Joy’s vocal range and she gets the chance to let rip a bit!
The album may divide a few fans on a couple of songs as the country and blues genres become quite obvious. On songs like From This Valley and Oh Henry there is a distinct country style from the way the songs are sung through to the instrumentation. They are very catchy songs with great melodies and even if you are someone who categorically doesn’t like country, I think you can still appreciate their lyric and top line melody writing abilities. The album is laden with melancholy acoustic songs that show how well their voices work together and songs like Same Old Same Old, Dust To Dust and Disarm would all fit perfectly into their previous album’s tracklisting. One highlight of the album is Sacred Heart, a song written and performed in French. The beauty of the French language, the harmonies and the music are a perfect blend that really sums up the talent of this duo. I only hope they work out their differences and keep creating amazing music.
Continue reading below for a ‘track-by-track’ from Joy Williams.
“The One That Got Away”
This song pays homage to regret. Nearly everybody I’ve come across has somebody in their life that they wonder what life would be like if they’d never met that person. It’s that sliding-doors moment – in the blink of an eye everything could change. Either for the positive or the negative.
John Paul and I wrote this song in the screened-in porch of my and Nate’s new home. I remember warm breezes blowing, a mild day. I had recently had my son, Miles, who happened to be asleep with Nate in the living room, right next to the porch. I remember asking John Paul to play quietly so he didn’t wake up the baby.
“I Had Me a Girl”
This song always conjures up an image of a glass of whiskey and a lit cigarette. It’s a little brooding. A little dangerous. It smolders. It has swagger and grit. It’s full of innuendo and Southern Gothic tones. I love the feel of this track, and the way this song came together on the record. “I Had Me a Girl” is one of those musical moments that makes me wish I knew how to play electric guitar. Or any guitar, for that matter.
“Same Old Same Old”
This song, to me, represents the ache of monogamy. This isn’t an “I’m leaving you” song. It’s a vulnerable confession of “I don’t want to leave. I want to work on this – with you.” Having said that, someone once told me a story about long-term relationships: to think of them as a continent to explore. I could spend a lifetime backpacking through Africa, and I would still never know all there is to know about that continent. To stay the course, to stay intentional, to stay curious and connected¾that’s the heart of it. But it’s so easy to lose track of the trail, to get tired, to want to give up, or to want a new adventure. It can be so easy to lose sight of the goodness and mystery within the person sitting right in front of you. That continent idea inspires me, and makes the ache when it comes hurt a little less. To know that it happens to all of us. What I’m realizing now is that sometimes the “same old same old” can actually be rich, worthwhile and a great adventure.
“Dust to Dust”
This song is an anthem for the lonely. Sometimes you come across somebody who thinks they are hiding their pain, but if we are all honest, nobody is very good at it. “You’re like a mirror, reflecting me. Takes one to know one, so take it from me.” When John Paul and I wrote this late one night in Birmingham, England, we decided to change the pronoun at the end of the song. We wanted to represent that we all experience loneliness in our lives.
We brought in our producer, Charlie Peacock, on this song. He helped with arrangements and really helped take the song to a totally different place. Sometimes as an artist, you can’t see what needs re-arranging when you’re so “in it.” Charlie brought perspective. Almost like an eavesdrop within an “Eavesdrop.”
Strangely enough, this song always reminds me that my voice has changed since the last album. I have my son to thank for that, truly. When I was first pregnant and performing on the road, I thought something was wrong with my voice. I was having a hard time hitting high notes, while my low notes kept getting deeper and deeper. I did some research with the help of a vocal coach, and learned that hormone levels affect a female singing range. Having a boy, naturally, upped my testosterone levels, making low notes easier to hit and higher notes harder to reach. But the great thing? After having Miles, I regained my high range AND have kept my low range. Pregnancy literally changed the makeup of my vocal cords. There’s a different timbre to it now, and I love that I can hear the story of my son in my singing.
This song is our take on an Americana murder ballad. It’s dark, prickly, anxious. It was fun writing because we just imagined some dust-bowl scenario, a broke-down town, and a man awaiting being hung for something he did in the name of trying to provide for his family. The woman who loves him is watching him standing there on the gallows. This song always reminds me of when the melody first came to mind. I was doing my makeup in the tiled bathroom upstairs, with my newborn Miles in a yellow rocking bassinet next to me. I started singing, and turned on the voice memo app on my iPhone so I wouldn’t forget it. As I sang, Miles started cooing along with me. Not on pitch, mind you, but I’d move a note, and he’d move a note. I’m never deleting that voice memo. It’s become one of my favorites.
“From This Valley”
That’s our Grand Ole Opry song. A new spiritual. It’s actually the oldest song written on the album. We wrote it before Barton Hollow came out. Even though we didn’t have our own recording of it, we started performing it live and it became a fan favorite. It made sense to finally put it on an album. One of my favorite moments on stage every night was singing the a cappella part together.
We recorded the performance at Fame studio in Muscle Shoals, a place we’d written a few songs before that made it onto Barton Hollow. I always felt the musical ghosts in that studio, one of whom was the great Etta James. We’re a band that’s known for covering songs live in our own way, and we thought it would be fun to take a stab at “Tell Mama.” I found out later that where we recorded was the same room she recorded her version. That might explain why I kept getting goosebumps.
We wrote it one week before Barton Hollow, in the mountains of Salt Lake City during our first Sundance Festival. We conjured up a story about a woman who was married to a philandering man. She is begging her man to level with her, and letting him know she can only take so much, a la “it’s gonna kill me or it’s gonna kill you.”
Again, we’re the band who loves to do covers. Both John Paul and I have always been huge Smashing Pumpkins fans. Nate mentioned it might be a cool cover, and we actually wound up working it out the same day that we wrote “Oh Henry” up in Salt Lake City for Sundance. It turned into another on-stage staple that people asked for every night. We found out later from his then-manager that Billy dug it.
We wrote this song in a flat in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower in full view on a cold night. Tall windows, Victorian furniture, and somehow the atmosphere of all of that seeped into the song. Nate and our friends were there in the room as we wrote, all of us drinking wine together. I also loved getting to try out my flawed French. I wrote what words I knew in French, and then had a Parisian friend named Renata Pepper (yes, that’s her real name) look it over later and help me translate. When we recorded the song for the album, I called in a French professor from Vanderbilt named Becky Peterson, who has now become a good friend.
We wrote this song in the studio behind my house in Nashville, on a warm summer day, with the windows and doors open. This song is a sweet lament, of loss and the belief that you’ll never be able to love anybody else again. I stumbled across “Letters of Note” on Twitter, and was struck by the title of a letter written by a famous physicist named Richard Feynman: “I love my wife. My wife is dead.” A little over a year after her death, he wrote his wife a love letter and sealed it. It was written in 1946, and wasn’t opened until after his death in 1988. He ended his note to his long-lost wife with “Please excuse my not mailing this but I don’t know your new address.”
Another aside to this song: While we were recording the song together, John Paul and I could hear crows cawing in the background that I’ve since named Edgar, Allen and Poe. This recording and performance of the song is the first and only in existence, a work tape recorded simply on my iPhone.