The Civil Wars
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
For a band that only has one full album to their credit, Unplugged, released exclusively through iTunes, marks the The Civil Wars’ fourth official live release. What fans of the group can be most excited about is that it’s the best sounding of the bunch to date. The previous two live EPs included a SXSW set (also an iTunes exclusive) from March 2011 that sounded like it was recorded from a cell phone and this past April’s Record Store Day release that featured a live performance from Amoeba Records in Hollywood from June 2011 whose sound was better but still rather muffled. Stunningly, their first live release, Live At Eddie’s Attic was the best of the bunch showcasing not only their songwriting prowess but their adoring chemistry. However, Unplugged, which aired on VH1 back in May, is the best document yet to be released of the duo under the spotlights.
Included are four songs from the award-winning and critically-praised Barton Hollow as well as one of their entries to the Hunger Games soundtrack (“Kingdom Come”) and two cover songs. The group is well-known for their adventurous takes on covers. There’s a version of Michael Jackson’s “Billie Jean,” almost unrecognizable at the start as John Paul White strums chords on his acoustic guitar, and a cover of Portishead’s “Sour Times,” a favorite band of both Joy and John Paul. It marks the first stateside release of the song by The Civil Wars, although it did appear on a 45 in the UK for a Record Store Day release in April 2012. The group’s harmonies are beautiful, giving light to a song that lingered in the shadows in its original version.
If there is anything to complain about on Unplugged it’s that we don’t get to hear the playful banter between the two before each song. True, it’s not intended to be a Storytellers release, but that camaraderie is a cherished portion of their live show with John Paul’s understated dry wit and Joy’s straight-laced character. Just ask anyone who has been to see them in person. Fortunately in this age of the internet, VH1 is still showing the full concert on its Unplugged website.
Given the unexpected tour cancellation news from last week, it’s hard to tell if this is the last official release we’ll see from them, although according to the full statement they “hope” to have more new music next year. Whether the band’s existence is in an endangered state shouldn’t be the sole reason to add it to your download queue. It’s worth it on its artistic merits alone, especially “Kingdom Come,” shown below.