Review: The Civil Wars – The Civil Wars
Published on August 8th, 2013 | Jonny Abrams
The Civil Wars’ follow-up to their double Grammy-winning debut Barton Hollow serves also as their swansong, constituent duo Joy Williams and John Paul White having announced their split in November due to “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.”
“Internal discord”? The Civil Wars? Too easy. Anyway, The Civil Wars is as polished as you might expect from an act afforded such prestige so early in their career, the pervading post-breakup malaise making it all feel like an indier, powerballadier version of The xx.
We don’t know about you but just the thought of that brings Rocksucker out in a rash. Imagine our surprise, then, when opener “The One That Got Away” proceeds to win us over by dint of quirkily punctuated, dynamically masterful Spaghetti Western drama.
Fading out and swelling around its slide guitar and sudden eruptions of sludgy power chords, “The One That Got Away” has enough about it for us to be able to look past the rather identikit nature of Williams’s vocal. White displays a similar limitation when he joins in on the ensuing “I Had Me a Girl”, but they’re both technically proficient and actually harmonise really rather nicely.
The nitpicker in us can’t help but take issue with White’s declaration of “I had me a girl / Like cigarette smoke, she came and she went”. Now, many things come and go; why pick cigarette smoke? It doesn’t really come as much as it goes, anyway, unless of course someone behind you is smoking.
A train: there’s something that really comes and goes. Or a day, even. So, why cigarette smoke? Because it sounds cool? It treads a fine line between ‘canny knack for imagery’ and ‘irksome affectation’. We’re a bit sick of the ‘old bluesman’ schtick beloved of so many so far removed from where it came from (and went?), so unfortunately it errs towards the latter for us.
Things remain relatively promising on “Same Old Same Old”, a tender folk ballad that soulfully catches fire, but it’s mostly downhill from thereon in. “Eavesdrop” sounds fit for Hollyoaks/Scrubs soundtracking, a concession to blandness that The Civil Wars doesn’t quite manage to shake off no matter how many different styles it attempts.
For instance, there’s blues in the sparse “Devil’s Backbone”, country in “From This Valley” and tempestuous folk in “Tell Mama”; somehow, though, it all feels like much of a muchness. None of it feels particularly fresh or all that necessary, while the thoughtful layout and attention to detail of “The One That Got Away” have by now been all but abandoned. “Got Away”, indeed.
“Oh Henry” pleases us by dint of sounding a bit like a female-fronted Gomez, and the French tongue used on “Sacred Heart” makes for a nice spot of exotica (if not much more); howeber, it’s not until the pared-back, lo-fi curtain-closer “D’Arline” that the sheen-laden production is torn asunder to reveal a real, beating heart in the middle of it all.
Too little, too late.
The Civil Wars is out now on sensibility recordings LLC.
Rocksucker says: Two and a Half Quails out of Five!