After winning two Grammys for their self-released debut “Barton Hollow,” the Civil Wars recorded a follow-up… and, while on tour in Europe, went their separate ways. Singer-songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White brought in more instruments, added deeper textures and, in general, upped the intensity of the songwriting for their second effort, which Sensibility Music/Columbia Records will release Aug. 6. The first single, “The One That Got Away,” is No. 23 on the Triple A radio airplay chart. It has sold 53,000 downloads, according to Nielsen Soundscan.
For this track-by-track review, Williams beat us to the punch by revealing her thoughts on each of the songs — which we will include along with our own.
1. The One That Got Away
Joy Williams: “This song pays homage to regret. John Paul and I wrote this song in the screened-in porch of my new home. … I remember asking John Paul to play quietly so he didn’t wake up the baby.”
Billboard: A powerful lead-off track driven by Williams’ anguish-filled vocals and a compelling use of dynamics. The use of the mandolin is similar that of R.E.M., lingering in the shadows amidst a storm of guitars.
2. I Had Me a Girl
Williams: “It’s a little brooding, a little dangerous. It smolders. It has swagger and grit. It’s full of innuendo and Southern Gothic tones.”
Billboard: Distorted electric guitars announce that the hush of “Barton Hollow” is a thing of the past. White and Williams alternate on verses that Williams describes to a tee.
3. Same Old Same Old
Williams: “This … represents the ache of monogamy… What I’m realizing now is that sometimes the ‘same old same old’ can actually be rich, worthwhile and a great adventure.
Billboard: A beautiful song about a break-up, “Same Old Same Old” is the sort of song you expect to hear during the emotional climax of a dramatic film. It’s about love, separation, desire and enjoying the “same old, same old.” The gentle acoustic guitar work is gorgeously voiced.
4. Dust to Dust
Williams: “An anthem for the lonely. … When John Paul and I wrote this late one night in Birmingham, England, we decided to change the pronoun at the end of the song. We wanted to represent that we all experience loneliness in our lives.”
Billboard: Initially framed by guitars that create a visceral level of paranoia and claustrophobia, “Dust to Dust” hits an instrumental break and it feels like someone has opened the doors and windows and let in a breeze. Affecting.
Williams: “Pregnancy literally changed the makeup of my vocal cords. There’s a different timbre to it now, and I love that I can hear the story of my son in my singing.”
Billboard: A mid-tempo, largely acoustic number that swells and builds, “Eavesdrop” could become Williams’ bread-and-butter as a solo artist. There’s considerable commercial potential in “Eavesdrop” – the idea that pain can be assuaged by a lengthy hug is part of it – and it feels like the sort of record that starts at Triple A and crosses over to country or pop.
6. Devil’s Backbone
Williams: “This song is our take on an Americana murder ballad.”
Billboard: The album’s most complex number, Williams and White drop a cappella mountain singing into a swirling rock ‘n’ roll stew. It has a visceral impact, as the vocals evoke the fear of death.
7. From This Valley
Williams: “That’s our Grand Ole Opry song. It’s actually the oldest song written on the album. We started performing it live and it became a fan favorite.”
Billboard: The answer to the question: do the Civil Wars have a potential commercial appeal within country radio? Yes — it’s the up-tempo, group-vocaled, faith-inspiring “From This Valley.”
8. Tell Mama
Williams: “We recorded the performance at Fame studio in Muscle Shoals, a place we’d written a few songs. I always felt the musical ghosts in that studio, one of whom was the great Etta James. We thought it would be fun to take a stab at ‘Tell Mama.’ I found out later that where we recorded was the same room she recorded her version. That might explain why I kept getting goosebumps.”
Billboard: Clarence Carter, Marcus Daniel and Wilbur Terrell wrote “Tell Mama” and Civil Wars’ plaintive rendition is as far away from the original as anyone could imagine. They bring out the greatness of the song, the conviction in the lyrics and the flexibility of the melody.
9. Oh Henry
Williams: “We conjured up a story about a woman who was married to a philandering man. She is begging her man to level with her, and letting him know she can only take so much.”
Billboard: The one song on the album that drops level in quality from the rest of the material. Nothing about the music, bright and buoyant to contrast the nature of the lyrics, is particularly striking, until the final minute or so. The way the tune shifts makes it feel like another song has been grafted onto it.
Williams: “Both John Paul and I have always been huge Smashing Pumpkins fans. It turned into another on-stage staple that people asked for every night.”
Billboard: A showcase for White to soar as a vocalist, it’s amazing to think that a Smashing Pumpkins’ song would be the sonic sister of the music on “Barton Hollow.”
11. Sacred Heart
Williams: “We wrote this song in a flat in Paris, with the Eiffel Tower in full view on a cold night. Tall windows, Victorian furniture, and somehow the atmosphere of all of that seeped into the song.”
Billboard: There’s a lilt in the step, a spark in Williams singing in French, a delightful unexpected turn down a street that’s filled with charm.
Williams: “A sweet lament of loss and the belief that you’ll never be able to love anybody else again. While we were recording the song together, John Paul and I could hear crows cawing in the background that I’ve since named Edgar, Allen and Poe. This recording and performance of the song is the first and only in existence, a work tape recorded simply on my iPhone.”
Billboard: A lovely example of imperfection playing a perfect role, quietly closing out this chapter of the Civil Wars.