- SPIN Rating:5 of 10
Label: Sensibility Music/Columbia
"I wish you were the one that got away," murmurs Joy Williams, one minute into the self-titled sophomore album from the Civil Wars, and while the song shimmers with an electricity missing from the folk duo's surprise-success 2011 debut, such mournful reflections on a floundering relationship handily monopolize this group's worldly concerns. The heartache of love's labor's lost informs nearly every song in the band's brief catalog, and when such rigidly sentimental material gets sung by photogenic, coed combos staring into (or avoiding) each other's eyes, you have the makings of grand shtick capable of wowing audiences across loosely segregated listening niches (indie, meet coffeehouse; folk, meet Nashville).
The melodrama has been finely calibrated since Williams and John Paul White first met at a songwriting camp – she the disenchanted Californian fleeing Christian pop, he the detached Tennesseean with a solo debut unceremoniously shelved by Capitol. Together, they rode a career-making appearance on Grey's Anatomy into Grammy success and big sales for 2011's Barton Hollow; their live act developed into a masterful clinic of tension and release. "Poison & Wine" became not only the pair's signature song — those twin substances supposedly apotheosized the slinky charms of the singers themselves.
Barton Hollow was also slow-paced and hushed, scrubbed free of regional signifiers, slick and sedate for a record that claimed so dark an ethos. Maybe audiences were desperate for another folky tag team in the Alison Krauss/Robert Plant vein, or perhaps the hint of tragic courtship overhanging the duo helped seal the deal. (Williams and White have never been linked romantically — both singers are married with children when they're not sadly singing, "We've been lonely too long" at each other). Then news broke in November 2012 that a European tour had ended abruptly, due to "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition."
A hiatus commenced. Sessions for Barton Hollow's follow-up were completed, but no live performances or interviews were scheduled. White shunned the press, leaving Williams to explain how the two were no longer on speaking terms, although she noted that eight months of zero communication between the two members of a two-person band "doesn't determine the outcome of the band, because if we're not speaking, we can't determine the outcome of the band at this moment."
If you don't think this backstage drama has any bearing on their new album, you're underestimating how central turmoil (manufactured or otherwise) is for a project like this: These two could use some drama. More musically diverse than the debut, The Civil Wars plays with 4AD guitar effects, slips a drum machine onto "Dust to Dust," and injects rude distortion atop several pretty good garage-blues tracks that sound like somebody handed Williams a copy of the Black Keys' Rubber Factory and asked her what she thought.
But acoustic dirges are what made this band, and acoustic dirges are here in abundance. Williams remains the more attractive vocalist: Expertly poised, she's as bright and breathy as Olivia Newton-John, and at her most preciously hushed on "Same Old Same Old," a number so becalmed it could have been recorded inside a research library's reading room. White is more problematic, mannered to a fault and too gun-shy to betray any country influence; his busily soulful flourishes mar the upbeat country-gospel lilt of "From This Valley." When he allows himself a warble on "I Had Me a Girl," it's as if Webb Pierce has just crowbarred his way into the studio.
But anodyne vocals wouldn't be so damaging if the words being whispered boasted details worth noticing. Instead, we're treated to the unimaginative use of language one might expect from a band not named after the bloody culmination of America's greatest tragedy, but "all the wars that we each face." One searches in vain for lyrics that frame events or characters inside recognizable milieus, those street names or county lines or brands of beer that good storytellers depend upon to help flesh out their familiar tales. ("She's the absinthe on my lips," from the debut's "Birds of a Feather," doesn't count.) Instead, we get boilerplate laments: "I wish I'd never seen your face" or "I wanna run away / But I don't"; or, worse, faux-profundities: "You're like a mirror / Reflecting me," and deathless couplets like, "Do I love you / Oh, I do / And I'm going to / 'Til I'm gone."
But who really cares, right? It's easy to imagine any number of country singers belting out those lines as if their lives depended on it. That's why comparisons to storied male-female duos like June Carter and Johnny Cash ring false. Cash's craggy bass alongside Carter's girlish flat notes complemented each other in ways that traditionally gorgeous vocals never could. By contrast, both singers here occupy the same smooth upper range, meaning there's none of the pleasant tension one feels between George Jones's soaring ache and Melba Montgomery's husky foundation, or Porter Wagoner's calm detachment and Dolly Parton's bubbling stream.
The Wars at least seem aware of their own limitations – witness a mournful cover of "Tell Mama," a song defined in different versions by two powerhouse singers, Etta James and Janis Joplin. Here, Williams transforms the come-hither-little-boy anthem into a lullaby cooed over a skinned knee, and while it's audacious, her let's-slow-the-song-down-to-reveal-the-inner-structure trick goes down every evening at open-mic nights from Bangor to Bellingham.
Still, better such studied weariness than Lady Antebellum's bland arena moves, right? Nah — this polite Americana mistakes solemnity for seriousness. Terrified of country & western's hokum, avoiding the bloody handprints of Appalachian balladry, and apparently embarrassed by blue-collar specifics, Williams and White seek solace in an adult-contemporary folk music that's as artificial a veneer as the truck anthems and Child ballads their uncouth Nashville cousins adore. After all, that's not Richmond that's burning on the cover or anything — it's just love's embers smoldering.