Monday, September 9, 2013

Review, part 2: The Civil Wars and civil unrest


In which I say authentic too many times

Last week, I began my review of the Civil War's new album, The Civil Wars, by giving a brief history of country music, with a lens on what makes music authentic. I need to make one clarification: I didn't want to insinuate that the Civil Wars are "authentic"; only that by making their inauthentic image more transparent (as a Southern gentleman and lady from the 19th century), they set themselves apart from other country music acts, and in comparison seem more honest. We saw this inauthentic transparency in their version of "I Want You Back," in which they take a known music item and reflect it through their own lens. It's a bit like cosplay (perhaps steampunk style) at a comic-con—inauthentically cool. And in all honesty, their distance from working class voices appeals to me, as I'm a college-educated middle-class white guy.

In another move of authenticity (or perhaps more correctly self-fulfilling prophesy), the duo seems to be having a fight. In November 2012, Joy and John Paul cancelled the rest of their tour dates in the middle of their tour, citing "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition." Sounds kind of like a divorce, doesn't it? Despite the success of their new album, they still haven't appeared together. You can read more about it here.

I don't think that their musical break-up was a publicity stunt, but perhaps the story did give the album sales a boost. Their tension may have contributed another way to the album, in the music and its performance. Says Joy: "The Civil Wars feels to me more emotional and more raw and more honest then even anything we did on Barton Hollow [their previous album]." This statement sounds like a self-plug for authenticity, but I also agree with her characterization of the album.

Smoke on the water...and everywhere else, too

The album art is a good window into the album's character—it's smoke, smoke, and more smoke. Smoke is usually a signal of something being damaged, but it also hides things. I think in the case of these songs, not only are emotions being damaged, but the voices of those damaged people are trying to disguise these feelings from each other. This is true in most of the tracks: "Same Old Same Old," "Eavesdrop," "Devil's Backbone," "Tell Mama," "Oh Henry," and "Disarm."

Image can only take a group so far without good music, though. Musically, The Civil Wars is for the most part less acoustic than Barton Hollow, more about using an ensemble to tell a story instead of a small, intimate performance. I think the production is great; instruments are used with surgical precision, only when they are needed. For example, while "The One that Got Away" is bombastic, they know how to bring the volume down, and also when to mix the dobro more prominently. Also speaking of surgical precision, the addition of dulcimer in "Eavesdrop" is genius, especially in this final chorus; the song gives the appearance of a normal electric-guitar-to-the-end until that dulcimer appears on top of the texture.

While the ensemble approach is a big change, another important change from the previous album is in the vocals—instead of an even division, this album is more about Joy's voice than Jean Paul's. And Joy's voice is great; even the a little-too-stereotypical-country "From this Valley," with its predictable backbeat and chorus, is made palatable by Joy's vibrant, emotional voice. The Civil Wars is by no means Joy's show, however; Jean Paul still makes his mark with his versatile guitar playing and warm back-up vocals. And, as the previous album, they are both given songwriting credit for all but two tracks on the album.

The final track, "D'Arline" was recorded on Joy's iPhone 4S, with crows (which they named Edgar, Allen, and Poe) cawing in the background. Maybe this is another call to authenticity—if we can make music with only an iPhone, with everything stripped away, then we must be authentic. And finally, how can the song in French ("Sacred Heart") not be inauthentic in a honest sort of way?

I had one complaint: "I Had Me a Girl" sounds a bit too much like the Beatles' "Norwegian Wood," as you might be able to tell from just the song title. With their eclectic palate, maybe the song was meant as a tribute, but I'm not so sure.

What did you think of the album?

Vocab: dobro, dulcimer

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