The Civil Wars The Civil Wars/Sensibility/Columbia
There were two things that stuck with me after listening to “Barton Hollow,” the 2011 debut by Joy Williams and John Paul White, better known as The Civil Wars.
First and foremost was the absolute purity, the distilled brilliance of the music. The duo’s Americana songs deftly mixed their voices in a way that is really incomparable.
Secondly, the pair turned in what has since become one of my favorite cover songs of all time. The Civil Wars’ take on Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” completely deconstructs that pop tune and makes it into something altogether different. Take a listen online if you don’t believe me. You likely won’t even recognize the tune until the chorus kicks in.
After riding high on a wave of great reviews and record sales for that first album, Williams and White abruptly stopped touring last year and announced that they would no longer be doing so for the foreseeable future.
While the prospect of seeing The Civil Wars live is still up in the air, the duo has at least mended fences enough to release its self-titled sophomore release.
Much like on that first release, the way Williams’ and White’s vocals intertwine is a beautiful thing. Williams’ voice is much more in the forefront on this outing, which, while not really a bad thing, definitely changes the dynamic that fueled the first album so effectively.
While collectively not quite as good as that of its predecessor, the music on this new album still packs an emotional punch. While it can only be speculated as to how much of the songwriting here happened after the breakup, almost all of the songs seem to come from a darker place than on “Barton Hollow.” Titles such as “The One That Got Away,” “Same Old Same Old” and “Dust To Dust” should give you an idea of what to expect.
Generally, if you enjoyed the first Civil Wars album, then this music will likely appeal to you. There’s even another beautifully deconstructed cover song, this time a gloriously yearning take on Smashing Pumpkins “Disarm.”
Key Tracks: “The One That Got Away,” “Dust To Dust,” “Disarm”
Hugh Laurie Didn’t It Rain/Warner Bros.
If the name Hugh Laurie seems familiar, then you might have been a fan of his previous job as the star of the TV series “House.”
Laurie, who played the grumpy title character of the medical drama, made a name for himself here in the states with that show.
For the geekier of us, though, especially those into irreverent British humor, you’ll also remember Laurie from the BBC sitcom “Blackadder.”
In addition to acting, Laurie is an accomplished musician. His previous release, 2011’s “Let Them Talk,” was a beautifully realized tribute to New Orleans blues and jazz.
For his follow up, “Didn’t It Rain,” Laurie has decided to stretch his legs a little when it comes to musical style.
Blues is still the name of the game, but this time Laurie jumps around geographically, covering songs by the likes of Jelly Roll Morton (“I Hate a Man Like You”), W.C. Handy (“St. Louis Blues”) and even Alan Price of The Animals (“Changes”).
Two of the albums best moments come with “Vicksburg Blues,” which features lead vocals by blues legend Taj Mahal, as well as the sultry “Kiss of Fire,” which features Laurie in a duet with Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno.
On that second track, the sexual tension between Laurie and Moreno is palpable, and the song’s tango-style tempo also helps to make it memorable.
It is obvious from his musical output so far that Laurie is a student of the blues. He gets extra points both here and on his previous album for making the projects more than just a man of means recording the music he loves simply because he has the clout to do so. Despite being British, Laurie is the real thing when it comes to being a fan of one of the most distinctly American styles of music out there.
Key Tracks: “Kiss of Fire,” “Vicksburg Blues,” “Changes”
Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny IrionWassaic Way/Redeye
While it is fairly common for the sons and daughters of a notable artist to delve into their parent’s line of work, you don’t often hear about that streak going on for a third generation.
The daughter of musician Arlo Guthrie and the granddaughter of folk legend Woody Guthrie, Sarah Lee Guthrie, has been making some pretty sweet music with her husband, Johnny Irion, for the last decade or so.
Irion is a South Carolina native, and local music fans might remember his band Queen Sarah Saturday, which played in town frequently in the ’90s.
Once Guthrie and Irion connected musically, sparks started to fly.
They’ve released a half-dozen well-received albums since 1994, and the latest, “Wassaic Way,” is produced by Wilco frontman Jeff Tweedy.
Tweedy has been involved with the Guthrie family since Wilco and Billy Bragg recorded two albums of music written by Woody Guthrie, and “Wassaic Way” tracks such as “Not Feeling It” and “Wherever She Is It’s Spring” definitely have Tweedy’s songwriting influence all over them.
Other tracks take on a decidedly Beatlesque approach, especially the opening song, “Chairman Meow,” which brings to mind playful Fab Five tracks such as “From Me To You” and “The Ballad of John and Yoko.”
While Sarah Lee Guthrie and Irion’s previous albums have always leaned more toward the folk side of things, the duo has never been afraid to crank up the amps and rock a bit.
This new album features a much more pop-oriented sound than fans might be used to, although the change actually works beautifully thanks to the usual top-notch songwriting from the pair.
If the saying about the apple not falling far from the tree is true, then in this case that apple produced a second apple tree, which also bore equally creative fruit. It will be interesting to see if the duo’s children pick up the torch in the future. For now, the third generation of the Guthrie music dynasty is in good hands.
Key Tracks: “Chairman Meow,” “Circle of Souls,” “Not Feeling It”
By Devin Grant