Talkhouse Contributing Writer Peter Holsapple has sung and played guitar in the dB’s, Holsapple & Stamey, and Continental Drifters, as well as playing on albums and tours with R.E.M., Hootie and the Blowfish, Indigo Girls, and Nanci Griffith. He contributes to the New York Times‘ songwriter’s blog Measure for Measure, and has written pieces in several books on music. Peter is a charter member of Radio Free Song Club, a magnificent new songwriters’ collective. He considers himself among the luckiest people on earth.
Some music comes along at a ripe emotional moment. It serves its purpose by distracting from the brittle feelings of what’s actually happening to you, and it gives wide berth to necessary perspective. But will these be lasting memorial tunes or are they just a stop-gap measure to survive the moment?
July was such a crap month, and I required quiet music most of the time. (Although I did turn up “Like a Rolling Stone” very loud when it came on my car radio the other day.) I needed more strummy than drummy to concentrate and navigate through the obstacles.
The Civil Wars’ new and possibly final album (they are currently on hiatus) is just what I was wanting. It is a delicious experience: acrobatic duo vocals, sparse notes and passing chords in all the right places, all played on richly written songs. The Civil Wars — singer Joy Williams and guitarist-singer John Paul White — never get particularly loud, but they’re truly powerful. Unease throughout the lyrics, fraught with the horror of fresh relationship kill, lies beneath the stark delivery of weaving, breathy harmonies and simple instrumentation. This album is a buoy of hope for popular music, presently foundering in melodic mundanity and pandering wordplay. If more “country” music sounded this good, I’d listen to more “country” music.
The album begins with the unsettlingly beautiful “The One That Got Away.” Williams brings tremulous purity to this song, which has a tone reminiscent of some of Fleetwood Mac’s hits. They swing into “I Had Me a Girl,” which rocks considerably harder. There are huge holes in this tune that the vocals pass through, dipping and weaving together. “Same Old Same Old” feels like everyone recording was crying when the chorus lifts off from the verses. (It certainly makes me cry every time the song comes on. That’s good, right? Catharsis?) “Dust To Dust” is another breathless mesh of acoustic and electronic sounds, Williams and White matched with their gentle trading of lines. “Eavesdrop” has an extraordinary arrangement that treads somewhere between ELO and Elliott Smith. Over the course of less than two and a half minutes, “Devil’s Backbone” fluctuates between near silence and a distorted electric guitar-driven waltz. “From This Valley” is more traditional; it sounds joyful, but the lyrics are cautious and hopeful: “I will pray, pray, pray ’til I see your smiling face/I will pray, pray, pray to the one I love.” “Tell Mama” is a familiar character — the heart of gold reaching out for the recently ditched to give some nurturing when it’s most necessary, and Williams plays it convincingly. “Oh Henry” has more of the exaggerated snarling guitar that is used so effectively on this album and leads into the delicate cover of the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Disarm.” “Sacred Heart” would not sound out of place on a Kate & Anna McGarrigle album, not just because it’s sung in French but more because of its longing chorus. The final track is the charming “D’Arline,” which is the duo without any accompaniment, which is how the Civil Wars played shows when they were together.
This July, I found myself returning to this album often, to immerse myself in the sonic wash when my external world was teetering out of control. Funny, considering the tumult going on behind the record as it was being made. I would like to believe that it could be a panacea like Nick Drake’s music has been in my life; sad times call for sadder music.
This is a second album without the usual sophomore problems. And it has suddenly become what seems to be the doleful final testament of a fragile but massively talented band. The Civil Wars is a keeper in this house.