the other side of war: a review of the civil wars

2013, Sensibility Recordings/Columbia

There is a peace that can only be known on the other side of war.

Regardless of who actually said this–I’ve seen attributions ranging from CS Lewis to the movie First Knight–the sum of the parts of The Civil Wars promised as much with their much-ballyhooed sophomore release in the wake of the that-much-more-ballyhooed speculation about the personal and professional implosion between Joy Williams and John Paul White.

In 2011, Williams and White, coupled by noted CCM producer Charlie Peacock in Nashville, released Barton Hollow, a little release that went largely unnoticed–it sat in the $5 section at Amazon for the longest time–outside of music blogs and Nash-Vegas insiders. One could sense the two feeling their way around each others capabilities and sensibilities on that record; at times, it crackles with the kind of energy that can only be attained when two talents find each other’s creative wavelengths–‘C’est la Mort’, ‘Poison and Wine’ and the eponymous track come to mind–while others frankly clunk, though with earnestness and an A for effort (except for ‘Girl with the Red Balloon’, a song that should have never found its way on the record.) Overall, what started as two artists loosely collaborating turned into a legitimate duo with legitimate promise.

That record found its way to Adele, they found themselves shortly thereafter working with T-Bone Burnett and Taylor Swift on the soundtrack for The Hunger Games and the rest is apocryphal. The moral of the story: you can be surrounded by legendary talent like a T-Bone Burnett, and you can be surrounded by serious talent like The Civil Wars, but, at the end of the day, you’re still Taylor Swift, and you still can’t sing.

What is “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition”, anyway? Does it matter what happened or doesn’t it? Is the record an entry in a two-person diary? Was it all just a marketing stunt, like Paul is dead?

I don’t think it was a ploy to generate interest; remember, these two were flying high when things went south, and their record legitimately rose from obscurity to pop culture buzz. They even got VH1 to give a crap about music for a moment. (When the moment passed, VH1 summarily went back to showcasing Leif Garrett taking a dump in a Burger King in San Bernardino or something.)

With that, last month, their second, possibly last record was released. Because I’m poor trash, I couldn’t pick it up until Sunday.

After giving it several spins, I’m decidedly mixed. Yes, it’s an effort Williams can be “fiercely proud of” as she said in her note to fans posted to the duo’s webpage. No, it’s not the monumental record they hoped it would be. Yes, the strong points in this disc are stronger than ever, while the lesser tracks manage to hold their own. Yes, there’s a lot of heart behind these songs. No, it’s not mixed or produced very well. (I’ve been critical of Peacock’s production qualities going all the way back to his work with CCM black sheep The 77s in the mid-80s. Full disclosure: my listening has been on lossless digital audio, compact disc, in the car, on a laptop with midrange audio quality and through Koss PortaPro stereophones, because friends don’t let friends listen via overpriced crap one finds at Best Buy or Target. I can’t speak to how it might translate on vinyl. Anyone else remember when the teenyboppers couldn’t care less about vinyl and records were cheaper than CDs? Those were the days.)

For being an album recorded while everything was supposedly falling apart between White and Williams, this record manages to avoid being overly brooding or caustic. The cover art, pictured above, is more ominous than the actual output. I don’t expect salacious or bitter lyrics: that would be base and counterproductive. Instead, they managed to produce a record that seems to naturally flow from Barton Hollow. Perhaps that’s more of an achievement than I would otherwise give credit for, but given all the rumors and the band’s indefinite hiatus/dissolution, one might expect a more raw feel to this release.

That’s where the artists’ work, the personal context and the production quality all collide. I wondered aloud how the same material might have been treated in the hands of Burnett or Rick Rubin, who did produce ‘I Had Me a Girl’, by far one of the strongest tracks on the record. Instead, we get upbeat, awkward polish (note to Peacock: 80s sounds on a duo fashioned from Americana do not work well) noted particularly on the opening track, ‘The One That Got Away’ (the track that may well tell the story behind the story), ‘Same Old Same Old’, ‘Dust to Dust’, the Smashing Pumpkins’ cover ‘Disarm’ and the closing track ‘D’Arline’. These aren’t the sounds of two people who are struggling to work together; rather, they carry the feel of a manic-depressive who is just getting the effects of a dose of Xanax. Again, I don’t think this is the fault of White or Williams, but it does warrant mentioning. Production quality matters.

Going back to ‘Disarm’, The Civil Wars doing cover songs is a fantastic novelty live for an audience or for YouTube fodder, but they should never, ever be on an album. It’s a waste of space that could be better used with their own material. Perhaps they have their reasons, but my guess is that, based off the viral success of their worthy, semi-tongue-in-cheek-yet-respectful rendition of ‘Billie Jean’, they felt an obligation to do it. I’d be more curious to have been caught unawares in a concert with Billy Corgan’s work than I am here in this context.

There are moments where the record really shows White and Williams at their best. As mentioned before, ‘I Had Me a Girl’ drives and churns with the kind of hellfire Nick Tosches references in relation to Jerry Lee Lewis when he would cut loose in concert. ‘From This Valley’, “our Grand Old Opry song” in Williams’ apt words, shows their commitment to their roots in country and American roots music, and does so admirably. ‘Devil’s Backbone’ is their take on a murder ballad, something that sounds like it could have come from the catalog of Holly Golightly, if she weren’t steeped in punk but rather in Appalachia. The good tracks are really quite good, my nitpicking aside.

All things considered, I can’t help but shake the feeling that they could have done this without the internal drama seeping out into the pop culture conscience at large, which makes it a good, not great record. The material itself is worthy, but the fit and finish aren’t quite right. I see a lot of ways in which this record could have been explosive–such is the difference between a candle and a stick of dynamite. It glows rather than shines.

They might have been better off trimming the tracks down into an EP, or keeping it a mysterious unreleased record; their very own Basement Tapes (or Chinese Democracy.) Instead, they forged ahead and released a full-length record. White has all but disappeared from the public eye, while Williams soldiers on as the survivor willing to talk, but only on her terms, heavily self-censored and introspective, mysterious but not miserly. Perhaps the triumph here is that they avoided putting out the record as a middle finger and Molotov cocktail to the world and each other, rather that they survived long enough to produce a proper sophomore record and retreated from the front lines of touring and the toll life takes on a band. Maybe the process was more important than the product. We’ll never know.

There is a peace that can only be known on the other side of The Civil Wars.


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