Tuesday, February 8, 2011

The Civil Wars

Transpose the setting of the Academy Award-winning work of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová in the outstanding 2006 film, Once, and you'll arrive at the sound of the Nashville duo John Paul White and Joy Williams, who record and perform as The Civil Wars. While the former pair – who have since translated their film work into a successful recording and touring outfit, The Swell Season – positioned their material along the streets of Dublin, imagine the latter's Barton Hollow (released last Tuesday) residing in a more rural American enclave – perhaps Appomattox or Manassas, given the duo's moniker – and reflecting a touch more country and folk than The Swell Season's carefully-constructed numbers. Yet, the vocal phrasing and duo dynamics between the two groups are notably similar.

Largely comprised of harmonizing or trade-off vocals from Williams and White accompanied by White's acoustic guitar or piano parts, the dozen tracks are warm and earnest folk/country tunes. Opener "20 Years" is gentle and illustrative of forlorn love, pointing to a note under the front door, "secondhand alibis" and redemption. It leads in nicely to the collection's best product, the more jubilant "I've Got This Friend." The pair's full-throated choruses here contrast well with the more reserved tag-team verses, while White's guitar introduces some pluck to the affair.

Later on, "Poison & Wine," starts off slow, but is most indicative of Hansard and Irglová's precedent, with its tandem, soaring phrases recalling much of the anthemic appeal their predecessors were able to engender over the past half-decade. Meanwhile, "My Father's Father" is an ancient-sounding railroad folk ballad – always a favorite motif of this author – with solid railroading imagery such as "black smoke up around the bend" and "blood on the tracks" – indicating the approaching train as a vessel of remorse and regret.

Conversely, the record's title track is also its most distinctive, with a rusty-sounding rhythm and grainy electric guitars making an appearance for the first time. The blend of southern-fried soul – the stuff of "Alabama clay" and "washin' in the river" – with recurring hints of Zeppelin-style blues is well-executed by both Williams and White. Later still, "Forget Me Not" is the album's most direct country-flavored cut, with a lazy fiddle marking its direction. And while the track is predictable via some cliched stanzas, it's also quite sincere, largely making up for the lack of lyrical originality.

Come for: "I've Got This Friend"
Stay for: "Poison & Wine"
You'll be surprised by: "Barton Hollow"

P.S. The Civil Wars are performing tonight at Jammin Java in Vienna, Va.

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