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New On Disc: The Civil Wars, Sam Phillips

The Civil Wars (Eponymous)/Sensibility Music-

What's love got to do with it?
What's love got to do with it?
Sensibility Music

You can tell a lot about an artist by their choice of cover song: from Willie Nelson's take on Pearl Jam's 
"Breathe" to Johnny Cash doing NIN's "Hurt", or Robin Holcomb's strangely beautiful retooling of Neil Young's "After The Gold Rush", the songs of others that resonate on a level which warrants interpretation reveals not only personal taste, but the eclecticism of its interpreter. Two years ago, in honor of National Record Store Day, The Civil Wars released a 7" single: the B-side was a cover of Portishead's seminal hit "Sour Times", the A-side the oft-covered Michael Jackson smash "Billie Jean." Now the latter choice is not exactly surprising - after all, who isn't enamored of the King of Pop? But Portishead? Really? Could it be that Joy Williams and John Paul White are as au courant as their blend of roots/country/folk would attest?

It's hard not to view the backstory of The Civil Wars without a small degree of suspicion: the pair met during a Nashville songwriting workshop (that alone should be cause for any music critic to harbor some measure of cynicism) and decided to pool their collective talents. John Paul White was reeling emotionally from having his debut album shelved by a record label for unspecified reasons (the understated masterpiece, The Long Goodbye was eventually self-released and is worth checking out), while Joy (a favorite among the Contemporary Christian circuit) felt constricted by her affiliation with such a marginal genre, and desperately wanted to branch out. So you could say disillusionment was the thread that brought them together. Soon the Internet was abuzz over their Poison and Wine EP, followed by the title track's inclusion on an episode of the hit network drama, Grey's Anatomy. By the time of 2011's Barton Hollow, the PR groundwork that had been laid in the years prior came to fruition: the album garnered numerous award nominations, eventually snagging Grammys for Best Folk Album and Best Country Duo Performance. But which is it - are The Civil Wars a folk duo or a country duo? Wait....they're two, two, two groups in one!

And herein lies the dilemma, at least for me: I'm all for artists whom we blithely label as "genre defying", but often that label isn't just a poor fit, but inaccurate. The Civil Wars aren't genre defiers, they're genre assimilators, and they do it with a level of virtuosity and execution that is admittedly impressive. As a case-in-point, witness the lone cover song that appears on their sophomore release. Adding yet another feather to their cap, the pair picked "Disarm" by The Smashing Pumpkins. The crystalline arrangement, haunting piano lines and Joy Williams' neo-operatic phrasing completely strips the tune of pop aspiration, yet manages to convey the same level of gravitas as the original, without the use of a well-placed timpani or string crescendoes. My immediate response was, this song would work perfectly on the soundtrack to Ken Burns' PBS series which bears the group's name. That observation could serve as an argument to define why some (though not all) critics haven't jumped on the CW bandwagon. Their music is emotive, their harmonies pretty, their musicianship stellar, yet despite the well-publicized tension of their personal relationship (White took to his Twitter account to announce a break-up, while Williams reportedly told the AP, "This isn't some marketing ploy to make things more interesting for a second album") the evidence doesn't run much deeper than the archetypal couplets which inform their songwriting.

I mean, even before hearing it, I suspected lead single, "The One That Got Away" harbored some sly play on words, and was vindicated when Joy sang the refrain "I wish you were/the one that got away." It's "I don't love you, and I always will" all over again. But I don't feel the genuine disillusionment, the resignation, remorse or outright acrimony creeping into any of these pristine, aurally gorgeous tunes - even the tasteful banjo licks on "The One That Got Away" can't hold a candle to the dark, menacing banjo that lingers on, say "Gold Dust Woman." If folks are expecting some post-modernist version of Fleetwood Mac's Rumours here, they will be sorely disappointed. "I Had Me A Girl" flirts with the sort of wordplay likely poised to disassociate Williams from her CC past: "He washed me as clean as a sinner could be/Oh, that boy taught me to pray/Down, down on my knees..." - its backdrop that faux proto-blues rock The Black Keys have turned into a cottage industry. In many respects, the songs and arrangements are more commercial-sounding, more radio-friendly; there's a lot of breathy intonation coming from Williams' voice, and on quiet numbers like "Same Old Same Old" and "Dust To Dust" the duo gets Nashville-cred backup from Jerry Douglas on dobro and multi-instrumentalist Charlie Peacock, who also produced most of the album.

Peacock's pedigree as musician and producer runs the gamut from his early-80's indie rock to helming recordings for Amy Grant and Switchfoot, and he clearly knows how to perfect their sound, but is perfection what these guys should be shooting for? "From This Valley" (a collaboration with Nashville stalwart and Emmylou Harris co-conspirator Phil Madeira) stands out here because it feels more organic, less calculated than the material that surrounds it. When the instrumentation falls off, and White/Williams intone a cappella: "The caged bird that dreams of a strong wind/That will float beneath her wings" something rings true, unencumbered, and decidedly sincere. "Oh Henry", another pleasant surprise (and a tune someone ought to shop to Dolly Parton, stat) appears to be about a woman who suspects the man she's dating is leading a double life.

And yet, Williams' declaration "This isn't a marketing ploy to make things more interesting" tugs at my gut like some stray dog attaching itself to my sense of compassion - especially when "Oh Henry" is followed by the ridiculously pretty harmonies (and sad mandolin of Andy Leftwich) on "Disarm." Frankly, The Civil Wars deserve a big wet sloppy kiss for making me appreciate a Billy Corgan song, as I have never been that agog over The Smashing Pumpkins in the first place. So my final verdict is: this is a very good album, and a serviceable follow-up to Barton Hollow. But I'm also holding out hope that the third time will be the charm for The Civil Wars. That's, if there is a third time. I'd actually be surprised if there wasn't. Sometimes, it's less a matter of not believing the hype as it is taking it with a grain of salt. Grade: B

Push Any Button Sam Phillips (Littlebox Recordings) - Sam Phillips (nee: Leslie Ann Phillips) shares a similar story with The Civil Wars' Joy Williams. In the early 80's, Phillips was pursuing a career in Contemporary Christian music, recording four albums for the Myrrh record label. Like Williams, she became increasingly uncomfortable with the Christian label, and the claustrophobic atmosphere she experienced being marketed as the "Christian Cyndi Lauper." The turning point came during 1987's appropriately titled The Turning: it not only fulfilled her contractual obligation, but connected her with producer T Bone Burnett, and marked the beginning of a professional relationship that would eventually spill over into their private lives. In '88, she signed onto Virgin Records. Her debut for them, The Indescribable Wow, was nothing short of a revelation - Philips leaped head-first into the deep end of alternative pop, and continued being a genre-defying force of nature through such watershed albums as 1994's Martinis and Bikinis, 1996's Ominpop, 2004's A Boot And A Shoe, and 2008's Don't Do Anything.

Don't Do Anything was the second turning point for Phillips - it marked the first album not produced by Burnett (they divorced four years earlier), and found Phillips taking stock of her newfound autonomy and exploring the often transient nature of love and relationships. She also jumped into the digital-only waters by aligning herself with the Long Play project, releasing a pair of albums (Cameras In The Sky and Solid State) in 2011. What remained constant through all the albums, label changes and digital releases was Phillips' shrewd pop sensibilities, married to lyrics that were by turns acerbic, cryptic, romantic and occasionally subversive - in other words, the kind of songs whose melodies seep into your head with their affable tunefulness, while the words sneak subliminal messages into your brain.

"Pretty Time Bomb", the opening tune on Push Any Button, grabs you right out of the gate with Phillips making hushed confessions like "It's easy to change your name/But harder to change your life" amidst a bottom-heavy beat which sounds like she's being backed up by a member of Blue Man Group. "When I'm Alone" is a marvelous homage to Buddy Holly and the Crickets - a breezy, rockabilly-tinged number; the simplicity of the lyrics unveiling basic truths about rediscovering oneself after a breakup: "When you lied, I heard the truth/I took back my heart and said goodbye/Though I will always love you/My time for crying is through."

During a recent interview, Phillips confided to me that the main objective of Push Any Button was to write a collection of songs that reflected the "jukebox" in her mind, and I'm here to affirm Sam has succeeded gloriously: you'd be hard pressed to find a better assortment of musically variegated, concise pop tunes, or a more entertaining set than on this album. Whether the mood is rocking, soft-folk or unfettered roots music, Phillips' clever wordplay and earthy vocals inhabit each track with a sense of purpose and yes, even fun - which isn't an easy feat to accomplish when the lyrics touch upon despair, betrayal and disillusionment. "All Over Me" is a perfect example of this - a sweet slice of Americana accentuated by a Mardi Gras-esque horn section, where Phillips declares "Drained of the emptiness that filled me/The dark is gone/I'm not holding onto anything/Their truth is not mine." Likewise, the Everly Brothers-influenced "You Know I Wont" combines poppish harmonies and a breezy melody with a killer chorus: "You think you can keep me blind/Make me wait to make up your mind/You know I won't/You can set fires all over town, corner me 'till I run around/But you know I won't..."

I would be remiss if I didn't take the time to acknowledge the crack musicians accompanying Phillips on this nostalgic set of forward-thinking tunes, including bassist Jennifer Condos, legendary pianists Dave Palmer (Joe Henry, Lindsey Buckingham, Aimee Mann) and Benmont Tench (U2, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Tom Petty), and drummer Jay Bellerose - they, alongside Phillips are a contemporary version of The Wrecking Crew, doing an exemplary job of bringing her songs to life. And if pressed to pick a personal fave, I'd have to go with the mischievous "Things I Shouldn't Have Told You" - from the opening snare fill to the groovy handclaps, electric guitar solos and Phillips' beat poetry (sample lyric: "The extraction of pleasure comes with just a few words/You could convert this to cash/Your eyes could take anyone...") it's one of the longest short songs on the album. Clocking in at two minutes and forty-seven seconds, it's nothing short of pop brilliance - if this is one of the tunes Phillips wrote with another artist in mind, I hope that artist was Sheryl Crow, because I can totally see her employing both the sass and quirky lyricism Phillips has on display here. And like the classic discs of the 60's, all this genius is contained in ten tracks, coming in just shy of a half-hour. No filler, and not a bum tune in the bunch, Push Any Button finds the singer/songwriter at the top of her game. Joy, John Paul........have you met my friend Sam? Grade: A-