The self-titled second album from Nashville-based band The Civil Wars favours Southern Gothic songs and sounds. The alternative folk/country duo with a big vocal presence chooses dark themes touched with desperation and salvation.
Joy Williams and John Paul White set up an enticing musical psychodrama with their call and response duetting (I Had Me a Girl). The Rick Rubin-produced song is a forceful mix up of dramatic vocals and hard driving acoustic, couched in a traditional backwoods lament. It’s topped off with a ragged fuzz tone for atmosphere.
The album has an ancient/modern character: the songs are acoustic-driven performances and vocal playoffs embellished by strings, percussion and electric guitar with slide. The arrangements and themes are traditional and could fit in a Depression-era Bonnie and Clyde movie.
Williams and White utilize their own version of the loud/quiet-loud/quiet grunge rock delivery using mood instead of attack. It’s a dark/light-dark/light evocative effect; some of it a dreamy throwback.
The album strikes a note of melancholy early on that holds until the end. Eavesdrop has this quality which is enhanced with a big crescendo.
The shadowy backwoods spirit that rustles through the recording gets its release in Devil’s Backbone. Williams’ whispery vocal sounds like spooks wandering the hollows, conjuring up Southern hellfire and hillbilly lust. Then it’s back to Bible thumping and some old time tent revival on From this Valley.
The duo has a sweet tooth for cover songs and they take a left turn: Etta James’ Tell Mama gets a somber treatment and Smashing Pumpkins’ Disarm is given a subdued parlour-type performance. They’re original and curious but neither catches fire.
But there’s enough drama here for an Italian opera, and undercurrents of unrest and earthy sentiments roll these potboilers along.
— Dean Gordon-Smith is a Vernon-based musician and longtime music critic for The Morning Star.