The Civil Wars, Shepherds Bush Empire, 19 March 2012
Harking to a couple of chorus’ from Nashville’s finest sure makes you think. The Civil Wars, fast becoming a runaway success on both sides of the Pond, have a lot going for them: their sound, such as it is, is pretty unique, despite sounding like a thousand other artists; they have the looks (not to mention the style) to make the front covers of magazines; and they call Tennessee’s capital home.
Let’s start with the sound. Americana is in vogue, it seems fair to say. The Civil Wars combine a pair of beautiful voices with the simplest of guitar tracks (ok, not quite as simple as your vintage Leonard Cohen). Having two singers lends itself convieniently to songs about love and loss, while the juxtaposition of John Paul White’s gruff directness and Joy William’s high earnestness suits the country genre they are grouped in, for want of a better one.
I suggest that this might not be the best nomination (though the Grammy board clearly disagree) because the music the Civil Wars create is a far cry from the wailing, honky tonky staples of Nashville’s glory days. This undoubtedly befits the times we live in, however, I suspect that a critic from the 1950s or 1960s might vere towards gospel and would undoubtedly be more correct. Had folk not become so associated with Dylan and Woody, it might have proved a more suitable nominer, for the spook of English popular song both New and Old is not far from the surface in ‘If I didn’t Know Better’ or ’20 Years’.
All of which brings me to Nashville. If Music City is no longer the stomping ground of Johnny Cash or Hank Williams, except as a museum-town, it is more Music City than ever. While country music did not evolve as an art form in the same way that jazz and rock ‘n’ roll did (on the other hand, commercial experimentation was rife), both Nashville and the Civil Wars are reaping the benefits of a melting pot of musical styles.
Music wealth has moved into Nashville, with both the Kings of Leon and Jack White III decamping there in recent years. The latter has certainly been influential, setting up Third Man Records and acting as consligliere to acts as diverse as the Black Belles and Wanda Jackson, but just as power gravitates to power, so to do the musical follow the muse. The very manner in which Williams and White met, at a song-writing workshop, illustrates this very prettily.
Nashville’s young talent, like Caitlin Rose and indeed, the Civil Wars, make up for the celebrity names. Moreover, their inspiration is much broader than the country music ouevre or the Alan Lomax tapes that catapulted American popular music into the first rank of nations. Rose is known for constantly posting her latest fetishes on facebook, while the Civil Wars cover everyone from Michael Jackson to Portishead.
Whether the Civil War continue their extraordinary success is open to debate. They have been called ‘safe and samey’, which is perhaps slightly harsh. On the other hand, they have a long way to emulate the great Richard & Linda Thompson, whose short collaborative years as a musical couple produced some great music.
Live in concert, the Civil Wars appear both impressed and impressive. Critics love to bring real life to bear on a band’s output – the Civil Wars are unusual in that their story is entirely a musical one, yet Barton Hollow will leave a mark on Music City nonetheless.
You can download a free album from the Civil Wars at their website. More on Nashville here.