The Civil Wars: The Civil Wars

The Civil Wars
The Civil Wars
(Sensibility Recordings/Columbia)
Rating: 4 out of 5  stars
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There’s no way to discuss The Civil Wars without discussing the not-so-civil fissure of the same-named duo. Though cynics and conspiracy theorists cling to claims of PR ploys, the reality is that no artists would go so far as to cancel a tour and even promise travel reimbursements to put-upon fans unless they had a really, really compelling reason. Not being able to share the same breathing space, much less perform together, apparently did it for Joy Williams and John Paul White.

It’s not as if we couldn’t see it coming. Their onstage banter had gone from humorous to sharply barbed. They quit sharing smiles. When they couldn’t even look at one another, it became all too obvious a war of some sort was indeed going on. The pair who started out having to convince people they weren’t a couple are now trying to suggest they’re “on hiatus” and not permanently fractured – even though Williams told the Associated Press they’re not on speaking terms.

The far sadder point to note is that their current state means no one will get to hear them perform the incredible music they’ve created together. That’s a damn shame, because The Civil Wars is a testament to the power of their undeniable musical chemistry. It’s even better than their Grammy-winning debut, Barton Hollow. As mesmerizing as that album was, it could have used just a few more rough-hewn textures splintering its flower-petal softness. This time, there’s more darkness, more edge. More venom. “I Had Me A Girl,” the only track on which album producer Charlie Peacock shares production credit with Rick Rubin, almost sounds violent, its sexual energy is so intense. Jerry McPherson’s scathing electric guitar gives the song a positively vicious feel, as if knives could fly in-between orgasms.

That follows “The One That Got Away,” whose refrain, “I wish you were the one, wish you were the one that got away,” might easily be read as a metaphor for their own breakup. But that’s a simplistic interpretation. Perhaps more telling insights lie within “Same Old Same Old,” which clearly addresses a growing divide, though couched in a love song. That one and “Dust To Dust” are delivered in the delicate, hushed-and-sweet vocal mode that made Barton Hollow so beguiling.

“Eavesdrop,” another breakup tune, has them trading leads, giving White’s wonderful tenor a rare spotlight (he gets it again on the folky “From This Valley”). Though there’s no reason to quibble with these impeccable arrangements, one wonders if White occasionally felt as if his singing took a backseat to Williams’ force-of-nature dramatic power. Her nuanced, swooping and soaring notes, silken whispers and potent near-roars enthrall in a way few vocalists can match (“From This Valley,” “Oh Henry” and the murder ballad “Devil’s Backbone” are shining examples), but he’s certainly no slouch.

But White’s also not talking, so there’s no way to know how he felt about Williams’ dominance of “Tell Mama,” the Clarence Carter/Marcus Daniel/Wilbur Terrell tune made famous by Etta James as a Muscle Shoals groover. Here, it’s practically a lullaby – a 180-degree spin from its usual treatment.

Still, their duet on Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” is absolutely gorgeous – the definition of transcendent. Their paired vocals are equally pretty on “Sacred Heart” – sung in French – on which Williams wraps those romantic-sounding words around White’s gentle acoustic guitar. They repeat the technique on “D’Arline,” though the out-of-tune string he plucks may be meant to suggest the discord they express in its lyrics.

“Can’t live with you or without,” they sing sweetly. “But oh, that’s how it goes / I could get over you / But please don’t ask me to / Just so you know / You’ll always be the only one / Even when you’re not / You’ll always be the only one / Even when you’re gone.”

In this closing track, wishful thinkers might choose to find a shred of hope that the Civil Wars will reconcile some day. If the North and South could repair their schism (troubled though that union still seems at times), we can at least keep our fingers crossed that White and Williams will be drawn together again. Clearly, they share incandescent magic, one they knew from the outset was unlike any either had experienced with previous collaborators. You don’t find a creative spark that ignitable and then snuff the flame while it still radiates such luminous brilliance.

Work it out, you guys. The music you make together is too strong to let it die.


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