The Civil Wars were a fairly remarkable story. Industry vets John Paul White and Joy Williams had each logged a lot of miles before they met at a Nashville songwriters’ event and discovered their styles and voices clicked rather ideally. The duo put in years of hard work, releasing singles and EPs and playing almost constantly, before their studio debut put them on the map. Their Americana sound, freely incorporating elements from folk, country, rock, pop, blues and gospel, gave them a broad stylistic appeal that fit especially well at Adult Alternative radio. Suddenly, The Civil Wars were everywhere. They toured constantly, including an opening slot for Adele, who became a big fan. They popped up one awards show after another and made numerous TV appearances. Movie soundtracks were eager to land contributions from the duo.
And the exposure paid off: their studio debut racked up sales in excess of 600,000 and their sophomore outing opened at number one on the Billboard 200. That should have been a moment of triumph for The Civil Wars. Instead, it was a bittersweet coda to a run that fans found to be all too short. Strife between White and Williams surprised fans when word of a “hiatus” for the duo first emerged. Things hadn’t improved by the time their eponymous swan song was released and shortly thereafter, The Civil Wars officially ended. Fans may never know the whole story. But with the release of Joy Williams’ new solo album, it’s a good time for a look back at the abbreviated discography of The Civil Wars.
The Civil Wars: Live at Eddie’s Attic (2009)
After the TV exposure of one of their songs piqued interest in The Civil Wars, the duo digitally released this live set to take advantage. It’s a fine mix of songs that would appear on their proper debut, other of the duo’s originals and a solid cover of Sade’s “No Ordinary Love.” For the most part, the duo’s alchemical harmonies are supported only by John Paul White’s acoustic guitar (with Joy Williams taking to the piano for one song). It’s a format that suited The Civil Wars quite well. The performances were warm and engaging, while White and Williams were loose and in good humor throughout (ironic considering how bitterly their partnership would end). Of especial interest is the duo’s own version of “If I Didn’t Know Better,” a song spotlighted in the first episode of country music drama Nashville. Williams and White’s take is slinky and quietly insinuating, working its power quite subtly and very effectively. Live At Eddie’s Attic is a nice way to hear the duo in the live setting in which they shined.
The Civil Wars: Barton Hollow (2011)
The Civil Wars delivered their proper studio debut with the excellent Barton Hollow. It spotlighted the duo’s variety of influences, whipped into something that sounded fresh and original. The strong interplay of the voices of John Paul White and Joy Williams remained the draw for fans, as the two blended in sublime ways over a course of organic instrumentation, highlighted by White’s inspired acoustic guitar work. The two emphasis tracks highlighted the many strengths of the album and band. “Barton Hollow” was a rousing blast of American Gothic swamp rock; propulsive, dark and edgy, it sounded like nothing else on the radio circa 2011. In contrast, the gentle “Poison and Wine” featured Williams’ delicate piano work in the context of a shimmering ballad that provided a stellar framework for the duo’s impassioned vocals. Other highlights included dark, haunting ballad “Girl With the Red Balloon” and the urgent but understated “Falling.” It’s little surprise that Barton Hollow became an award-gobbling hit and gave The Civil Wars a much deserved turn in the spotlight.
Soundtrack: The Hunger Games (2011)
The Civil Wars contributed to two tracks for the high profile adaptation’s soundtrack. The duo’s collaboration with Taylor Swift, “Safe and Sound,” brought out the best in the young diva. The Civil Wars provided subtle support as Swift dug into some real emotion on the mournful Appalachian lullaby. The duo took the spotlight for their own cut, “Kingdom Come,” putting their impassioned harmonies in the spotlight for a darkly urgent mountain ballad that could easily have fit on either of their studio albums. Hunger Games may have been a detour for the duo, but it was an interesting one.
Soundtrack: A Place at the Table (2013)
Working with revered Americana producer T-Bone Burnett, The Civil Wars made contributions to the soundtrack to this documentary about hunger in America. Most of it was background music, but “Long Time Gone” was a nice piece of bluesy, dust bowl country rock that stands on its own quite well. “Finding North” was a gentle, lovely acoustic ballad with a lot of heart. Those two cuts were strong, compelling additions to the band’s catalogue.
The Civil Wars: The Civil Wars (2013)
When news first emerged of a rift between John Paul White and Joy Williams, it took most fans by surprise. The Civil Wars were coming off a very successful run supporting their first studio album. They had a gold record, a couple Grammys and a lot of good will to their credit. But listening to The Civil Wars, it’s not difficult to believe that the two people who made the album stopped speaking to one another immediately thereafter. Conflict may have brought the duo to a premature end, but it also sparked White and Williams creatively, leaving this album as an apt farewell to fans.
Certainly lead single “The One That Got Away” was emblematic of the tension between the duo. Its dark, brooding rock vibe was a harbinger of the turbulence of the album. It wasn’t hard to hear “I wish you were the one that got away” as a mutual declaration of a crumbling partnership. It served as a powerful mission statement. The Civil Wars gave their varied influences time in the spotlight. “I Had Me A Girl” and “Devil’s Backbone” packed great blues rock snarl. “From This Valley” and “Oh Henry” were smart, bracing slices of contemporary country. Several tracks worked in the adult acoustic format that made the duo’s reputation. “Same Old Same Old,” “Dust to Dust” and “Eavesdrop” were a 1–2–3 sequence of strong writing combined with sublime two-part harmony. “Sacred Heart” even delivered some gentle, French-language folk. The most stunning moment on The Civil Wars was the duo’s dark, acoustic reworking of The Smashing Pumpkins’ modern rock standard “Disarm.” With little more than their harmonies and White’s intricate guitar work, the duo transformed the song into a pained, impassioned cri de coeur that somehow perfectly summarized their implosion in a way their own songs couldn’t. The line “what I choose is my voice” may be the closest fans will ever get to understanding what went wrong. The Civil Wars ended with the gentle, counter-tonal “D’Arline,” a wispy, regret-drenched ballad that was the perfect final word for the duo’s all-too-brief run. Fans may have lamented that no more music would come from The Civil Wars after this album, but it was a rich, compelling way to close this chapter for White and Williams.
Joy Williams: Venus (2015)
Since The Civil Wars called it quits, Joy Williams is the first to put out a solo album. Venus sees the singer making a firm move into contemporary Adult Alternative territory, mostly leaving behind the Americana sound of her previous duo. Establishing a musical identity distinct from The Civil Wars is a necessity for Williams. Fortunately, the different sonic approach fits the material on Venus very well. Not that the songs themselves are a substantial departure from what Williams composed with John Paul White; they still fit firmly in the singer/songwriter mold. Instead, Williams and her new collaborators embrace electronics, synthesizers and computer programming, bringing out different aspects of her sound that positions the new material to compete quite effectively with what’s playing on Adult Alternative radio these days.
That approach manifests in different ways, such as adding some real rhythmic propulsion to songs like “Before I Sleep” or “Not Good Enough” that imbues a lot of energy and momentum to Williams’ performances. Elsewhere, the production embroiders some texture to quieter moments like ballads “One Day I Will” and “You Loved Me” or mid-tempo cut “Sweet Love of Mine.” Williams dips into world beat with the soaring tribal anthem “Woman (Oh Mama).” And the singer can still flirt with the sound of her former project, as she does on the sinister, churning “Until the Levee.” The turmoil of the past couple years provides Williams with a lot of fodder and her lyrics reference the numerous stresses on the singer as The Civil Wars imploded. Williams addresses her rupture with White most directly on Venus’s centerpiece track “What A Good Woman Does.” The mournful, haunted ballad expresses Williams’ anger and disappointment, but also strikes a defiant note in the chorus: “hear me/I haven’t lost my voice without you near me/I could tell the truth about you leaving/but that’s not what a good woman does.” It’s a stunning moment for the singer that anchors a strong collection suggesting that Williams will be just fine resuming her solo career.
Your move, John Paul.
Originally published at thunderalleybcpcom.ipage.com on July 28, 2015.