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John Paul White and Joy Williams makes songs ‘that even Abe Lincoln and Jefferson Davis would have to agree upon.’
John Paul White and Joy Williams makes songs ‘that even Abe Lincoln and Jefferson Davis would have to agree upon.’

The Civil Wars puts aside 'internal discord' for sure-to-sell second album Add to ...

  • Title The Civil Wars
  • Artist The Civil Wars
  • Label Columbia, Sensibility Records
  • Rating 2.5/4
  • Year 2013

Isn’t this interesting. A Paste magazine feature from late 2011 on the sweet Americana duetists Joy Williams and John Paul White began like this: “Their name may indicate otherwise, but internal discord has never been a problem for the Civil Wars. When they’re not cracking jokes or singing each other’s praises, Williams and White are crafting striking harmonies that even Abe Lincoln and Jefferson Davis would have to agree upon.”

Nicely put. Now fast-forward to 2012, when the Grammy-winning emoters cancelled a major tour as it was happening. The official explanation for the split? “Internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition,” according to the press release. I imagine if the statement was read aloud at a press conference, Williams would have read the first part and White the second; these two sentence-finishers do put the “civil” in civil war.

So much so that the pair put aside its “internal discord” for a second album, a sure-to-sell self-titled follow-up to 2011’s Barton Hollow. Musical marriages are gladly made on Music Row, but splits are frowned upon. George Jones and Tammy Wynette probably signed their divorce papers in the back of a limo on their way to the recording studio.

Williams and White were not a couple romantically, but their Taylor Swift-approved music is relationship-based almost always. Lyrics on the pair’s overcast second album are sung exclusively and earnestly in the first person. Fans emotionally invested in the duo will read between lines; I’ll leave them to that.

The One That Got Away is the lead single and the album’s lead track. The atmosphere is spectral and Southern gothic, with Williams despairing in her urgent, melodramatic way: “Oh, I wish I’d never seen your face.” White’s voice is tightly behind and below; the couple’s rapport is an empathetic one.

I Had Me a Girl opens with a brutish Black Keys-style guitar riff. The overwrought swamp blues number is produced by Rick Rubin. All other tracks were handled by co-writer Charlie Peacock, the man whose credits are all over the duo’s debut.

A pair of cover tunes disappoint. The rock-and-soul of Etta James’s Tell Mama is screwed down to an acoustic frown. By crooning in her one-dimensional wounded fashion, Williams either misreads or abuses the point of the song, which is built on a maternal swagger and fierce security. On the Smashing Pumpkins’ Disarm, the song’s original tension is defused, mandolin stroke by pretty mandolin stroke; White’s deeply heartfelt balladeer turn and Williams’ soaring responses are to Endless Love-level mush.

The album ends attractively with D’Arline, which is plucked and softly thumped rather than blandly strummed. It’s quite folky-beautiful and slightly offbeat; the twosome please when they don’t try so hard. “Can’t live with you or without,” they sing together. Ah, sweet discord.

Top selling albums in Canada for the week ending August 4:

Blue-eyed R&B artist Robin Thicke moves to the head of the line with Blurred Lines, which debuts at the top of the chart, ahead of Backstreet Boys (In a World Like This), Five Finger Death Punch (The Wrong Side Of Heaven and the Righteous Side of Hell, Volume 1), Selena Gomez (Stars Dance) and Jay Z (Magna Carta Holy Grail).

Top single:

Thicke maintains his grip on the Billboard Hot 100’s top spot for a ninth week with Blurred Lines, the breezy blockbusting tune, which has enjoyed the longest run at No. 1 by a solo male artist since Flo Rida led for 10 weeks with Low in early 2008. Blurred Lines is also burning up the charts for Hot 100 Airplay, Digital Songs and Streaming Songs.

Also released this week:

American songstress Alela Diane’s ruminative About Farewell; Canadian rockers Dinosaur Bones’ Shaky Dream and post-rock adventurers Explosions In The Sky’s soundtrack for Prince Avalanche. B.W.

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