Thanks to the austere folk instrumentation and the sepia-toned imagery on Barton Hollow, their 2011 debut, the Civil Wars have been lumped in with new old-time revivalists like the Avett Brothers and Mumford & Sons, but the duo has never been quite comfortable among the overalls-and-trucker-hats set. On their self-titled follow-up, Joy Williams and John Paul White distance themselves from that acoustic/authentic movement with a rawer, harder, darker sound that makes room for abrasive electric guitars and stoical programmed beats. There are quiet numbers here, like “Dust to Dust” and the nearly unrecognizable Smashing Pumpkins cover “Disarm,” which don’t stray too far from the plaintive strumming and pillow-talk harmonies of their debut. But on The Civil Wars those songs contrast dramatically with surprisingly heavy numbers like “I Had Me a Girl” and “Eavesdrop.” First single “The One That Got Away” could be a demo for a metal tune, as the percussive riffs and unsettling silences convey the horrors of soured love. Ratcheting up the rural-gothic drama and sexual tension to a nearly operatic level, Williams and White may be accused of sounding overwrought. Yet, such baroque intensity suits them well, as The Civil Wars not only offers a compelling expansion of their sound but also definitively distinguishes them from their musically conservative peers.
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