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Big Kids Make Their Return: The Civil Wars

The Civil Wars' second album was released during a civil war between the two members, Joy Williams and John Paul White.

Last November, inexplicably, the band canceled their European tour. The Civil Wars apologized profusely, saying they would reimburse their fans for their tickets and inconvenience.

But the mystery continues. JP has been completely silent on the issue, but Joy has mentioned “differences of ambition." So what does that mean?Maybe Joy had more ambitions than JP, as mere moments after she had a baby, she continued on tour, while JP has mentioned in interviews that he wants to spend more time with his 4 kids at home in Tennessee. Intriguing stuff?

[My initial theory was that their political views got in the way of their music as they canceled their tour right around the 2012 election.]

[Maybe they also just want to embody their band name? Publicity stunt? Some folks have argued that, but I trust that Joy and JP actually have integrity.]

So, it is actually quite amazing that less than a year later, they have produced their second album, with the single “The One That Got Away” hitting number one in Spotify charts in its first week.

Most reviewers have said that they “can feel the tension” between Joy and JP in the album, but except for “The One That Got Away,” the album is not full of tension but rather more commercialized, boring music. Another difference in ambition? One member reaching for a more accessible type of music that could be played on a top 40's station?

Let’s take the track “From This Valley.” It is a bumpin’, fun tune, but unlike any track on their previous album, this sounds like any ol' country song on a big, fat, commercial country radio station.

Then, the track "D’Arline" sounds like poop. But that’s because it was recorded on an iPhone. Billboard said that it really touches back to the Civil Wars’ base. But, the Civil Wars’ base is great musicianship and a tight sound. This track just sounds sloppy. Yes, the iPhone 5 has 3 internal microphones, but that just doesn’t cut it for a highly anticipated album.

“Sacred Heart” is just embarrassing with its oversimplified French vocabulary and Joy’s pronunciation.

One track that was particularly uncomfortable was “Same Old Same Old,” which focuses on the difficulties of monogamy. Which is weird because Joy’s husband is the Civil Wars’ manager. Which could be another point of tension between the two band members.

The album in its entirety lacks the intimacy of the previous, but worse than that, Joy and JP’s voices are buried. This album features many more instruments, which detract from the core of the band: their sensational harmonies. Minimalism is what the Civil Wars need to keep their original power.



New on the scene: Valerie June

Even if you had never heard Valerie June sing, you would be immediately attracted to her because of her hair. Oh, that hair. On her album cover, it sits on top of her head, a foot high. And when down, she is a veritable Medusa.

Oh, and that multi-genre approach to creating music. Folk? Country? Soul? Blues? Gospel? Some funk?


Pushin’ Against A Stone

Then, you go to the next track “Somebody to Love,” which is a beautiful, simple piece that touches even the aorta with its touching melody.

“Tennessee Time” is genuine old-timey country, and the album-titled track “Pushin’ Against A Stone” is like a 1970s rock-n-roll with dissident guitars and aggressive keyboard.

Regardless of the intriguing instrumental details and varying styles of June and her band, the most intriguing element of the album is her voice. Think Joanna Newsom but less likely to cause a hemorrhage. It creates a cohesive flow from track to track despite the changing genres. Her voice is haunting, sensual, and heartbreaking.



A local discovery: The Darnell Boys

Mess, mess, and brilliant.

The Darnell Boys hail from Athens, Georgia. They play musical chairs with their instruments. When I saw them in an Atlanta basement over the summer, they were raising money to buy another guitar and exchange the instruments they had with each other from song to song. Their drum set was made out of pots and pans. And, they could all play every instrument.



Tracks range from a band of train robbers to catfish to hard times. But each track is relentless, and on the whole the album continues to bump and pump the whole way through. No slow numbers for the Darnell Boys. Sadness and lonesome hearts, yes, but not slow.


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