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The Civil Wars


Joy Williams (2001) / By Surprise (2002) / Genesis (2005) / The Long Goodbye (2008) / Barton Hollow (2011) / The Civil Wars (2013)

Joy Williams (2001)

Track Listing:
It's All Good B+ / No Less B / I Believe in You B- / Up C / Touch of Faith B / Serious C+ / Home C Second Nature C+ / Better Than I C / Do The See Jesus in Me C+

Now, how did I ever get myself roped into reviewing a 2001 Christian Contemporary album? Moreover, from someone apparently aiming to be a Christian-friendly version of Britney Spears? ...Well, it started something like this: I made a proclamation the other day that I wanted to review modern acts that I actually like. One such modern act is a kind of hellfire-and-brimstone folk-rock act that's making waves these days called The Civil Wars. One of the more enticing aspects of this group, I thought, was that they'd only released one album, so I could review them quickly and move onto another act. ...But I did a little bit of clicking around about them on Wikipedia and discovered, lo and behold, that they each had back catalogs. The female member of the duo, Joy Williams, has by far the most extensive one, and *gasp* the earliest of them are Christian contemporary albums. Sure, I could ignore these things. But I won't.

I pretty much hated “No Less” the first time I listened to it. However, it has somehow managed to grow on me on repeated listens enough to at least tolerate it. It's a pretty obvious obvious take-off on Britney Spears' “...Baby One More Time,” except the lyrics are predictably about God. I confess I have trouble understanding why CCM musicians seem to thrive on making such pale imitations of popular songs—like boring, church-friendly Weird “Al” Yankovics. Does this do anything more for kids than remind them that they're listening to inferior imitations?

Williams does have Spears beat handily in one key category, however: she has a far, far, far better singing voice. I mean, she not only has the required cute, bubbly, girly voice, but she can really BELT IT. Spears could never really belt it; her voice has always been cartoonish, like it never left the Mickey Mouse Club. Williams' is oakier, like an improved Debbie Gibson. So I guess when it comes to female pop singers, there aren't a whole lot of people who have Williams beat. The record companies knew about her and her massive talent for years and even started offering her record contracts as early as the age of 14. However, she turned them down, citing that accepting them wasn't part of God's will. By the age of 17, I guess she and God were ready to make the leap. (By the way, she was born only three days before I was. I don't think I'll ever review anyone closer to my age.)

One problem I have with one of these songs, “Up,” is that Williams adopts an urban accent for it. There's no way this girl on the album cover (who basically looks like the girl version of Jonathan Taylor Thomas) actually says things like “Sittin' on yo' hands” or “Whatcha gonna do?” A song more up her alley is “I Believe in You,” which sounds like Celine Dion. The singing is big, fancy and incredible, but it's plagued by the ho-hum gospel-ish melody and plastic instrumentation. The instrumentation, especially, is absolutely the polar opposite of the work she would do as a member of The Civil Wars. Indeed I'd imagine 99.8% percent of fans of that band would prefer to steer clear of this early work. I suppose the best Spears imitation of the album is “It's All Good,” which has a few good vocal hooks working in its favor. It's the first song of the album, so you really wouldn't be missing much if that were the only thing you'd hear.

However, if you decide to press on with it, some of the other songs are certainly passable. “Touch of Faith” has a nice big chorus, and it's fun to hear her so effortlessly hit some of those really high notes. I'll also say that pop orchestration is generally ear-friendly without being terribly obnoxious. (The exception is one very brief moment and sort of in the background in which her voice gets auto-tuned. ...I don't get it.) “Serious” is a well-polished and well-meaning pop song with another big vocal performance. However, I do get awfully tired of listening to it by the end.

Maybe the worst thing about the album are the ballads, which sound like they were lifted off some horrible Disney soundtrack from the '90s. Luckily the ballads, “Home,” “Better Than I,” and “Do They See Jesus in Me,” appear more toward the end, and I'm thinking you'll probably have turned it off by then. I would like to close this review by stating that I honestly didn't pull out this album just to bash it. I didn't know whether I'd like it or not, and it turned out I didn't. Though it's still decent enough to earn a rating in my 'mediocre' range. 6/15. Feel free to double this rating if you're into the whole teen-pop CCM thing.

By Surprise (2002)

Track Listing:
New Day B+ / I Wonder B- / Every Moment B / By Surprise A- / Surrender B / Desperate C+ / Everyday B- / Wish B- / Beautiful Somehow B / The Love of the Lord Endures B

Wow, this still isn't a very good pop album; it's filled with some pretty boring melodies and standard/plastic instrumentation standards. But it does mark a pretty significant improvement from her debut album, for what that's worth. I can tell you there's at least one song here that rock 'n' roll fans might enjoy. (That is, rock 'n' roll fans who find themselves unwittingly listening to this album! You know, the ones with Christian girlfriends.) It's the title track, and it has a riff and a thrusty beat. Moreover, I've taken this album with me for a few walks, and that's by far the best song here to walk to. So if you want to include in your collection a small sample of Joy Williams' pre-Civil Wars material, then check it out. It also reminds me quite a bit of Robyn Hitchcock's “What You Is,” so listen to that song, too! (Seriously, not enough people listen to that guy. ...Er maybe I should be reviewing him instead of this?)

Everything else on here is your garden variety pop music except--unlike her previous album--I don't notice any awkward Britney Spears rip-offs or horrible Disney-esque ballads in here. Everything here is more or less tasteful. This is an album that I don't have to feel too embarrassed for listening to. I can tolerate it. But unfortunately, 'toleration' isn't exactly the relationship I want to have with albums, so I'm afraid I'm going to have to count this as another album I don't like very much.

I can tell that there were songwriters behind all these songs, but apart from the title track, they haven't created melodies that thrill me much to death. The instrumentation--while better than the blandness of the previous album--still comes off as toothless. And of course the lyrics are about God, but looking into some of them, I guess they aren't really so bad. (“For just one moment I wish I could have seen you growing / learning the ways of a carpenter's son / just a little boy gazing at the stars / did you remember creating every one / if you passed by would I see a child or a king / or would I have known.”) The only thing about these songs that do thrill me to death is Williams' powerhouse chops, which surely would have been a huge hit on American Idol if she went down on that route. Maybe that's what this album reminds me more than anything else. The sort of album you'd expect to hear from someone who had won that contest. Or runner-up, considering how whitewashed this thing sounds.

Maybe the best non-title-track song here is the opening track “New Day,” which has an upbeat rhythm, bubbly acoustic guitar strumming, and a perky vocal performance. It makes a fun listen. It's just a shame that almost nothing about the song sticks with me after it's through playing. The second track is “I Wonder,” which is an OK piece of fluff and has the kind of chorus I think I recognize from some of those fluffy movies I used to go to the theater and watch in 2002. (Can you believe it that I actually went to the theater to see A Walk to Remember in 2002? Yeah. I must have been bored. ….But thank God I got a Netflix account a year later so that I could watch these dumb chick-flicks without having to ask the person at the ticket booth to sell me a ticket.)

“Desperate” is an OK ballad even though it quickly grows dull and there's nothing at all I take away from the experience. That's easily the most boring song of the album to sit through. However, at least there is some texture to the arrangements. “Every Moment” is actually a pretty good song in that it has another chorus that Williams just BELTS. And man. What a voice. That's the kind of singing voice that's difficult to nod off to. Another spot I notice her huge voice is the closing song “The Love of the Lord Endures.” Albeit this simple piano ballad starts out quite dull and... er... churchy, but if you're willing to stick around for the second half you'll find Williams singing about as loudly as she possibly could. Like she was trying to win a bet that she could sing loudly enough for God to hear her in the clouds. And I think she won.

There are other songs on here, but I probably don't need to talk about them. I'll close this review by saying that this album is something I can probably recommend to people who really like Christian Contemporary Music. In fact, considering how awful a lot of that stuff tends to be, this might even be a glowing recommendation from me. 8/15.

Genesis (2005)

Track Listing:
Stay A / We A / Say Goodbye B / Hide B- / Beautiful Redemption B+ / Unafraid B / Silence B- / I'm In Love With You B- / God Only Knows B+ / Child of Eden B

Am I crazy, or has Joy Williams' CCM albums been getting exponentially better? This was Williams' final CCM album, and considering how much it blows away her previous, which in itself had blown away the one before that, I have to wonder what her next CCM album might have been like? (Or perhaps the reason she quit the genre was because she realized she went about as far as she could go with it?) The big development here was that this was the first time that Williams either wrote or co-wrote her songs. While Williams is no Paul McCartney, this album proves for the first time that she wasn't just a pretty face and a nice voice.

Now, before going to your nearest Christian book store to buy this album, keep in mind that this is CCM/pop, which is otherwise known as music that's exactly like regular pop music except it tends to be relatively more stale and whitewashed. But the two opening songs here are fantastic and certainly worth checking out. Of those two, I'd say “Stay” is the best of them. It starts off with an interesting texture created with a jingly piano, a rhythm guitar, and a sort of a staggered drum machine rhythm. Williams' vocals right away come in as commanding and confident, and she manages to rattle off quite a few decent hooks in the process. The chorus, she belts out beautifully of course... as if anyone would let her keep her powerful chops dormant! This song also develops in some rather intriguing ways. When the verses section pops up for the second time, I notice that she continues to add instruments on top of that twinkly piano groove, and this helps keep the song fresh and moving forward. Then she does something positively clever after the second chorus when the song breaks into a brief, darker section featuring some foreboding chimes, watery guitars, and gloomy strings.

“We” is another vastly enjoyable tune with some hooks that are utterly potent. I actually like the verses section far more than the chorus, which I find to have been betrayed with some washy and heavily processed electric guitar that drowns everything else out. However those verses are quite the ticket! It's characterized by a cute and bouncy drum machine rhythm, a bubbly electric guitar, tinkling xylophones, and some hand-claps. (You know you're listening to a fun song if it has hand-claps.)

Despite my opinion of the matter, there was another song here that has managed to endured more lasting popularity than anything else: the romantic piano ballad “I'm in Love With You.” She wrote it for her husband (to whom she'd been married a year or less) to express her eternal and binding love to him. The reason it's so popular, I guess, is that there are other married women in our society who like to play it to (torture) their new husbands. In other words, that's one mushy ole song! But that's not what I have against it; the melody is forgettable, and it fails to carry me along for the ride. A much finer ballad is “Beautiful Redemption,” which has a nicely textured arpeggiated piano pattern and a melody that, in spots, manages to catch my ear. My problem with it that I still seem to get tired of listening to it. (Sorry... I'm not being very constructive!)

Many of these songs seemed like they contained the seeds of something that might have been great, but they didn't quite make it. “God Only Knows” (not related to the Beach Boys song!) has a moment in it that occurs right before the chorus that seems to gain a little traction, but unfortunately there's more of that horrid, processed guitar that totally ruins the chorus. By no stretch of the imagination do I find “Hide” a terrible song, but … urgh! More of those stupid guitars in the chorus! Why are these album producers so attracted to that noise? They take the soul out of everything!

But anyway, this isn't a perfect album, and I didn't expect it to be. The important thing to note here is that Joy Williams is showing to the world for the first time that she's not only able to write her own music, but she's able to actually make the material better than what the professional songwriters had been giving her. ...After this album, Williams and her husband would break the shackles of generic CCM/pop and start releasing fantastic pop music under their own production company! As for now, this album gets a 10/15.

The Long Goodbye (2008)

Track Listing:
Losing Me A / Black Cloud A- / Alien A- / This Life A / Call it Love B+ / Come Over B / Holiday A / September B+ / Over My Head A- / Neon B / Home A- / Sleepwalking B

Not only do I have Joy Williams' pre-Civil-Wars solo albums to trudge through before I'll let myself actually review The Civil Wars, but here's also a pre-Civil-Wars solo album from its other member: John Paul White. (And no: He's not related to Jack White, thank goodness. He's also not related to Johnny Depp even though it definitely looks like it.) Also, as it turns out, I'd actually listened to this album--or at least part of it--all the way back in 2009. I pulled off one of its songs for inclusion on an epic series of play-lists I made. (I had nearly 700 songs on this play-list before I finally stopped working on it. Beat that, nerds.)

What you ought to know about John Paul White is that he sings as though the end of the humanity was nigh, and he took it upon himself to sing the final song any human would ever sing. That would be something if I was actually hearing the final song that would ever be sung, but there are 12 of them here. That schtick gets very, very tiring. With that said, if you don't think that high-pitched voice of his is beautiful and soulful, then there must be something wrong with your brain!

Fortunately, at least the songwriting is very good throughout. The song I chose for my 700-song play-list was “Losing Me,” the opener, and it's the most captivating thing of the album. The orchestration in the verses consists of a strumming folk-guitar, a slow drum beat, and stark synthesizers creating a gray back-drop. That's all good 'n' fine, but wait until he hits the chorus; it's the kind of chorus that goes WHOOOOOOOSHHHHHH!!! The first time you hear him do that, it's fantastic. Icing in the cake is a violent and passionate electric guitar solo in the final third.

Almost equally as good as that song is “Black Cloud.” (Hm! Is that about depressing things, I wonder?) This one's a little poppier, and it also hits one of those whooshy choruses. ...Except I'm not quite as excited about the whooshing that time. The law of diminishing returns applies to whooshes, too, apparently. Perhaps the best chorus of the album is from “This Life,” which really sweeps me away as he sings with that heavy string section.

One song that doesn't have a whooshy chorus is “Holiday,” which is nonetheless very melancholic and dreamy. That thing is beautifully done with some high-pitched, arpeggiating acoustic guitars and some heavy, woodwinds playing subtly pushing things up in the background. Not to mention that I LOVE that melody. Really gorgeous. Another song I really like here is “Over My Head.” ...What does that song a disservice is that it's the ninth track, and by then, I've had it with the whooshy choruses. When I hear it alone, I quite like it. In the context of the album, I'm ready to slap this “suffering” Johnny Deep look-a-like on the face and scream at him "ENOUGH ALREADY."

I'll still gladly give this album a deserved 11/15 even though it's a difficult thing to sit through. On a case-by-case basis, these songs are extremely well-written. It's just that he was perhaps a mite misguided on the presentation of this. ...He must've only discovered he could sing choruses like that only recently, because he's REALLY showing that off. (True, The Civil Wars were also very dramatic, but at least then they had a little more variety. And we also had Joy Williams there, so he wouldn't be alone in all his grief.)

Barton Hollow (2011)

Album Score: 13/15

I suppose at some point, I should get around to finally reviewing The Civil Wars. But before I do that, let me first acknowledge the singles and EPs that Joy Williams had been recording and releasing from 2009 to 2010 that unfortunately aren’t in easy-to-review album form. They’re these bright, sweet, hooky indie-pop tunes that seem all happy and stuff. If you only know Williams for her work with The Civil Wars, you might not even think happiness is an emotion that would register with her. So that might be surprising. I would highly recommend listening to her song “One of Those Days” to give yourself a nice taste of what these songs were like. So nice, so happy. Naught even a hint of where she would end up going with The Civil Wars. The Civil Wars, who specialized in creating folk of a grim, forlorn, gut-wrenching flavor and lyrics about losing love. When I listen to this album, what I conjure in my mind are images of Williams and White standing outside where it’s dusty and dry and next to a creaky old house, and they have a tired look in their eyes that reveal their hearts to be as hard and dry as a giant, ancient, jagged rock.

The Civil Wars was the result of Joy Williams and John Paul White meeting together one fateful day in 2008 in Nashville, during a songwriting workshop, and they figured out pretty quickly that they had chemistry. They might never have been a couple or have fallen in love, but if you hear how naturally they seem to work together throughout this album, well…maybe there was a little something between the two? They were both very strong vocalists, and they share vocal duties equally throughout this album. The instrumentation throughout is bleak—orchestrated mainly through sparse refrains from an acoustic guitar. Occasionally there might be a swell from a cello or a string section, and if you listen closely, you might even notice a fuzzy electric guitar providing dark soundscapes or—if you get lucky—some drums. Truly, it’s mainly the strength of the vocal performances that carry most these songs. Of course, it helped that Williams and White had some serious songwriting talent; for all of these tracks, there’s something about the melodies that compel me.

The absolute pinnacle here, for me, is “Poison & Wine.” If you want to get a feel for what The Civil Wars were all about but would rather not invest the time to listen to an entire album, just give that one a shot. It seems as though they’re singing about the most important thing in the known universe—and perhaps they are, since it’s about the death of a romance. The thing that holds this song above all others on this album is its utterly powerful crescendo. The way Williams and White start belting out repeatedly “I don’t love you but I always will” at the end of the song hits me squarely in the chest. It’s like these guys knew exactly what their strengths were and threw everything they could at it.

The other song I might take a gander at is the title track, which is the only moment here you’d want to stomp your foot to (and of course expect to rustle up a ton of dust as you’re doing so, as obviously you’d be in the dusty Wild West wearing cowboy boots). There’s something about that song in particular, and the way they sing it, that makes me think of these two as firebrand preachers in the Wild West, red in the face, warning their congregation about staying away from some horrible sin, using a parable from the Old Testament.

The majority of these songs I would characterize as “beautiful,” but in case there is any doubt, there’s a stunningly gorgeous instrumental “The Violet Hour.” The melody, which is led by a piano, and the melancholic background instrumentation is something I would close my eyes to and find myself in an empty field, where I’m left with nothing but reflecting upon all my regrets. All the other songs on this album come with singing, and I would rate the quality of their lyrics from good to excellent…but not brilliant. As much as I can get myself into their universe of forlorn longing, most of these songs don’t really put specific images in my mind. (At least based solely on reading the lyrics.) The exception is “Girl with the Red Balloon,” which tells me a story about a girl who reminisces about a lost love. Did she let him go, or did the four winds blow him away?

This wouldn’t normally be the sort of album I’d like to give a 13 to. At least from singer-songwriters who aren’t verifiable geniuses like Bob Dylan, or something. I also tend to enjoy quirkier albums than ones like this—not an album like this that received such mainstream attention that it wins Grammies for pete’s sakes. But I gotta give these guys credit: For what they try to do, they threw everything they had at it and succeeded with high-flying colors.

Read the track reviews here!

The Civil Wars (2013)

Album Score: 11/15

Pretty much The Civil Wars do in this follow-up exactly what they did in their debut, except the melodies don’t stick to me as much, and the general atmosphere of these songs tend to be even more tense, dark and heavy. Rumors circulate that the reason the misery knob was turned up was due to the fact this duo were experiencing tough times together. The story goes, Williams and White were in the middle of a European tour in 2012 when all of the sudden they decided to call it quits. Things went so sour, apparently, the two weren’t even on speaking terms. Thus, by the time their sophomore album was released in 2013, the band was already effectively kaput.

This follow-up was received by critics and audiences roughly as well as the debut was. Not only did it get positive reviews, but the album sold a lot. They even won a Grammy for their vocal performance in “From This Valley.” It is certainly true that if you loved their debut, you’ll love the follow-up likewise. However, in my mind, it just isn’t quite as good. Consider this the A Day at the Races to the debut’s A Night at the Opera. They are so similar they might as well have been released as a double album. But the album that was released first had all the better songs.

The opening seconds of this album even show the first hints that the album would be inferior to the debut. That is, it doesn’t have anything remotely equaling that potent melodic, acoustic guitar loop, which is so ingrained in my head that it’ll likely remain there for a long time. By contrast, this sophomore release begins with “The One That Got Away,” which starts with an atmospheric fade-in and then some twangy guitar. For sure, it sounds fine, but it just isn’t that special. …Now let’s not go too far down the deep-end, since I do like the song. Its pounding, thunderous instrumentation packs a nice punch, and the bitter lyrics stick to me. (“Oh, if I could go back in time / When you only held me in my mind / Just a longing gone without a trace / Oh, I wish I’d never ever seen your face / I wish you were the one / Wish you were the one that got away”)

I would also say the debut album had more diversity. In this follow-up, the songs have more of a tendency to blur together in my mind. However, this album does have its distinct highlights. My favorite track is certainly the one which won them their Grammy, “From This Valley.” I had to look up whether that song actually originated with a ‘50s or ‘60s country/western act, because it certainly sounds like it. It’s an excellent song that I can tap my foot to and sing along with (whenever I feel so inclined). Another song I really like is “Sacred Heart,” which has a pleasant melody, beautiful high-pitched acoustic guitar arrangements, and it’s sung entirely in French. And since it’s in French, I, for once, don’t have to get so much into the details about the extent of these guys’ suffering. Never mind that Joy Williams is giving such a quiet, desperate vocal performance that I still get the gist of the fact she’s suffering. Oh, why must they suffer so much?

The album ends with a bit of a whimper, “D’Arline,” which sounds like a demo. Sometimes musicians decide to put demo recordings into their final albums, as opposed to polished studio cuts, is because of they find their rough quality lends the song charm. I wouldn’t say that is true with “D’Arline.” It isn’t a particularly charming song, nor is it memorably melodic, and it would surely have benefitted from the same dark, pounding studio treatment they gave the rest of these songs. Perhaps these guys just didn’t get around to recording it, because they were fighting so much? Your guess is as good as mine.

It truly is a shame that these guys broke up, if only because it’s so rare that such an intelligent folk/country band would gain such popularity as they did. On the other hand, I’m not sure how far these guys could have even gone with their act. Would they have just continued to release clones of Barton Hollow until the end of time? Or would they risk losing their legion of fans by trying something new? I suppose we will never know. Though perhaps we can get hints of what direction they would have gone when we delve into their subsequent solo albums.

Read the track reviews here!

All reviews are written by Michael Lawrence.