One gets the distinct sense that there's a storm a brewing on the jacket of The Civil Wars major label debut. It appears that a huge plume of black smoke is all that remains. And that depiction may be most accurate in a number of ways for The Civil Wars, the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White. First and perhaps foremost is that Williams and White seem to be at professional odds. As for the material contained here, for the most part, it's about relationships that either have or should go up in smoke as well.
The Civil Wars came out of nowhere with a sparkling studio disc, "Barton Hallow," that garnered them two Grammys, doubtlessly led to a Grammy winning collaboration with Taylor Swift, lots of touring and hundreds of thousands of albums sold. The only problem was that the principals were at odds with each other to the point that they don't really have all that much of a relationship. It was almost surprising that Williams and White were able to even record an album.
Maybe the turmoil has been good for them professionally because this is another stellar album with the two seemingly maintaining a magical musical rapport. Williams, who once upon a time was a Christian artist, simply has a gorgeous voice that is perfectly matched to the material. She brings a lot of cred to the subject matter in her delivery. She even sings Sacred Heart in French, recalling Tift Merritt's Mille Tenderesses.
White is more soulful in his delivery (From This Valley where is a lot of give and take between the two as well as harmonies). While perhaps not quite as gorgeous as Williams vocally, White acts as a good counterpoint to his partner.
But they also work their magic together on Disarm, given a totally different treatment - far more subdued musically than that of The Smashing Pumpkins. The vocals come off as sadness and pleading instead of Billy Corgan's anger.
Charlie Peacock once again produced the disc except for one song and he faced the easy choice of letting the vocals stand out first and foremost. Doing anything else would have been silly. Williams grabs more of the leads than White, but both deserve much praise for the sense of feeling that each contributes.
Whether the relationship issues are a blip in the larger picture or the coupe de grace will have no affect whatsoever on the strength, beauty and grace of "The Civil Wars."