It's hard to listen to Joy Williams and John Paul White sing lyrics like “don't say it's over” on The Civil Wars' new, self-titled disc and not think of the big picture.
Just as they release their self-titled second album – one that consolidates their strengths and has the potential to be huge – comes word that their professional relationship may be irretrievably broken. No one knows if they will work together again.
If that's the case, “The Civil Wars” will go down as a pop music tragedy.
Williams and White add more power to their acoustic base here, and the lead single “The One That Got Away” fits comfortably within the music driving the current folk-rock commercial boom. Some increased instrumentation does not sacrifice the beauty of their vocal chemistry.
Their songs cast love and loss in spiritual terms. “Oh, Lord, what do I do,” Williams sings on “Devil's Backbone.” “I've fallen for someone who's nothing like you.” Prince would appreciate White's sentiments on the sensual “I Had Me a Girl” when he sings: “That woman taught me to pray. I saw heaven every day.”
A little taste of success made this duo confident, not timid, as is often the case on second albums. This is an assured and focused set of songs. If anything, it's too focused, and Williams goes a little overboard on the breathy dramatics.
It's toward the end where you sense the real possibilities of this act. “Disarm” is a sublime cover of a Smashing Pumpkins song, an unlikely choice by a band with one foot firmly in acoustic country. “D'Arline” is a stripped-back tune recorded on an iPhone on Williams' porch that shows off the duo's simple charms.
The two songs prove they have the taste and ability to try many different directions in a full and satisfying career. Success on a large scale, which would certainly be in reach if The Civil Wars worked hard over an extended period to get this disc heard, would give them the freedom to go anywhere they want musically.
Instead, it looks like The Civil Wars may be the one that got away.
**** George Duke, “DreamWeaver”
George Duke was left devastated by the death of his wife, Corine, from cancer a year ago and unable to make music for months, but the keyboardist and composer eventually overcame his grief to create an inspiring collection of mostly original compositions called “DreamWeaver.” He weaves together the eclectic threads of his 40-plus year musical career: acoustic jazz, electronic jazz-rock fusion, funk, R&B and soul.
The mid-tempo “Stones of Orion,” which pairs Duke on acoustic piano with longtime collaborator Stanley Clarke on upright bass, is a gently swinging modern jazz composition that recalls his early days with Cannonball Adderley's band. Duke's distinctive ability to make vintage synthesizers – the ARP Odyssey, Minimoog, clavinet and Prophet 5 – sound bluesy and funky comes through on the 15-minute “Burnt Sausage Jam.”
Duke also assembled an impressive lineup of soul and R&B vocalists, including Lalah Hathaway, Jeffrey Osborne and BeBe Winans on the uplifting, gospel-influenced “Change the World,” which takes after Michael Jackson's “We Are the World.” “Ball & Chain,” written by Teena Marie for a jazz album she planned with Duke, is one of the late powerhouse singer's last recorded performances.
Duke expresses his love for his late wife on the tender, piano-driven ballad “Missing You,” a romantic vocal duet with Rachelle Ferrell. The album ends by turning the cowboy ballad “Happy Trails” – Dale Evans' closing theme to “The Roy Rogers Show” – into a soulful, heartfelt farewell to his wife, made even more poignant by the sudden death of guitarist Jef Lee Johnson shortly after he recorded the fadeout guitar solo.
K.T. Tunstall, “Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon”
“We are fighters in our prime,” K.T. Tunstall sings to her father on her new album, and the words resonate with poignancy now that he's gone.
“Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon” focuses on the death of Tunstall's dad last year, and from her sorrow sprung perhaps the best set of songs yet by the Scottish singer. She recorded the album in Arizona, where the stark desert landscape depicted in the cover art perfectly matches the musical mood.
Tunstall finds beauty amid the bleakness, and her intimate alto eloquently expresses her emotions as she contemplates mortality. Co-producer Howe Gelb provides graceful support with sparse but distinctive wow-and-flutter arrangements.
“We're all made of glass ... with one eye on the clock,” Tunstall sings in “Made of Glass,” and there's comfort in her candor. The songs are neither sentimental nor heavily spiritual, although the final composition offers an epitaph for her father as a choir swells, singing with angelic fervor at the end about the end.
Other new album releases this week:
“Yes, It's True”, The Polyphonic Spree
“Didn't It Rain”, Hugh Laurie
“Now That's What I Call Music, Vol. 47″, Various Artists
“Wassaic Way,” Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion
Top 10 Songs on iTunes this week:
1. “Blurred Lines (feat. T.I. & Pharrell),” Robin Thicke
2. “We Can't Stop,” Miley Cyrus
3. “Holy Grail (feat. Justin Timberlake),” JAY Z
4. “Radioactive,” Imagine Dragons
5. “Safe and Sound,” Capital Cities
6. “Wake Me Up,” Avicii
7. “Get Lucky (feat. Pharrell Williams),” Daft Punk