Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Civil Wars drops anticipated sophomore LP despite indefinite hiatus

Jim Farber/New York Daily News

Photo: ALLISTER ANN
Few albums arrive with stranger back stories than the Civil Wars’ latest. The hit duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White took the freakish step last year of announcing exactly why they were canceling their biggest tour, smack in the middle of it. A press release credited “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition.”

Yowza! Who reveals stuff like that?

Wait — it gets better. The triple-Grammy-winning pair also announced they would record a second CD anyway. And they have — though, upon completing it, they stopped speaking to each other entirely.

It’s a killer way to create buzz, however sad and true the situation behind it may be. It’s also an amazing way to up the sexual/creative tension in music that always made heavy use of it.

Williams and White have never been a romantic couple, but they played one in their songs. The brittle and aching pieces that flickered through their debut, 2011’s “Barton Hollow,” found the pair entwining their voices with a threatening intimacy. They were singing to each other and about each other, mirroring and commenting at once.

Their empathetic rapport had much in common with the duo behind “Once,” only with a drier sense of observation. The frisson clicked, to the tune of over 600,000 albums sold, helping clear the path for the folk revival, which Mumford & Sons ran all the way with.

The Civil Wars’ new disc repeats some of the delicacy and beauty of their debut, stressing plucked guitars rather than strummed ones. But it adds more electric punch. All the songs anchor to a latticework of chords, contrasting the formality and precision of the duo’s swelling voices.


Williams takes more leads, but even when White serves as an echo, he has a crucial role — offering ghostly commentary and parallel experience. The fact that nearly every song addresses relationships that got out of control only ups the intrigue around the pair. But there’s too much relatable power in the music to reduce it to mere gossip.

The single “The One That Got Away” — in which each singer wishes the other made just that escape — beats new life into a cliche. Even a cover of Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm” sounds nothing like the original, turning its rock anger into folkie introspection. Here the two empathize with each other’s ruinous needs — the very thing that pulled them apart. Like the whole CD, it takes an astonishingly forthright admission and transforms it into art.

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