A piece of music news made ripples this week, particularly among the “Americana” crows, though it probably shouldn’t have. The band The Civil Wars announced they are officially splitting up. This really was no surprise, as the duo of Joy Williams and John Paul White had been on hiatus for almost two years. Williams alone did most of the publicity for the band’s eponymous 2013 album, while White apparently crawled back home to his family.
While I was never a huge fan of their work, I thought I’d begin the playlist with a Civil Wars song and see where it leads. And it inevitably – and maybe too obviously – took me down the folk/Americana rabbit hole. Genre-wise, this is a fairly uniform playlist, but within the genre are so many permutations as to make it diverse. Enjoy.
“Forget me Not” & “Was it You”
The Civil Wars took home two Grammys from their 2011 debut, Barton Hollow (they won 4 total in their short life-span). Their pared-down production, simplified instrumentation and intense duet-ing won over many fans. “Forget me Not” is actually one of the least vocally intense of their tracks, but I still can’t overcome the feeling that Williams and White tend to shout instead of sing when the music crescendos. “Was it You,” conversely, is an example of a singer – in this case Emma Beaton of the band Joy Kills Sorrow – fully in control of her voice during the crescendo. I never feel that Beaton is shouting at me, even as the song intensifies. I obviously prefer the latter song to the former; it’s certainly sad whenever a band breaks up, particularly on such rotten terms as seems the case with The Civil Wars (the irony of the name should be lost on no one), so it’s good to know there are plenty of bands that as of now are enjoying making stylistically similar (or even better) music together.
“Emmylou” & “A Song for You”
Both The Civil Wars and Joy Kills Sorrow put me in mind of another duo, in this case the Swedish sister tandem of Johanna and Klara Soderberg. Their music and style are steeped in psychedelia (c.f. The Lion’s Roar album cover), but they owe much to country roots music, particularly the cosmic-America sound of Gram Parsons, as the song “Emmylou” attests to. I’m smitten with the Soderbergs’ voices, which are so sparklingly clear as to be otherworldly – which might just be the point. To jump from a song titled “Emmylou” to a Gram Parsons tune is no large stretch, as Parsons effectively “discovered” Emmylou Harris. I could have chosen any number of GP songs, but “A Song for You” remains one of my favorites. The line “I hope you know a lot more than you’re believing / just so the sun don’t hurt you when you cry,” just kills me. Added bonus of Emmylou singing back-up. (I could easily compose a playlist only of Emmylou-singing-back-up songs, and it would be a damn fine playlist.)
Uncle Tupelo are the natural and obvious descendants of Parsons, and alt-country wouldn’t be a genre without them. Hailing from St Louis, I discovered Uncle Tupelo (who were from across the river in the Belleville, Illinois) before I discovered Gram Parsons. This sound of ear-drum pounding punk country infused with moments of grace (like the acoustic guitar picking after the electric solo and the country-swing ease of the final half-minute) was a revelation to me. I played out “Postcard” when I first came across it, to the point that the music director at my college radio station had to talk to me about diversifying my musical selections.
“You Are My Face/Impossible Germany” & “Hard on Me”
“Postcard” is a Jay Farrar tune, and there’s little doubt that in the early days of Uncle Tupelo, Farrar was the better songwriter. Sure, Jeff Tweedy had his moments, but he didn’t truly blossom as a songwriter until after the dissolution of Uncle Tupelo and his founding of the seminal band Wilco. In the Tweedy/Farrar debate, most Uncle Tupelo fans fall on one side or the other. I tend to straddle the fence. I love Farrar’s adherence to his country roots and his explorations of those. And I have loved how Tweedy and Wilco have innovated Americana music, allowing it to move beyond its country roots and embrace other musical genres, most notably, in these two tracks, jazz-rock. “Impossible Germany” is the lynchpin of Wilco’s album Sky Blue Sky, but I feel “You Are My Face” is the perfect microcosm of Wilco’s entire oeuvre: strong rhythm guitar, graceful harmonies, touches of piano and other instrumentation, and if not a time-signature change mid-way, then certainly a change of pace. But I feel the two songs are a pair, “You Are My Face” feeding perfectly into “Impossible Germany.” The latter is a showcase of guitarist Nels Cline’s chops (Sky Blue Sky was Cline’s first studio album with the band), with a solo that in its brilliance leaves your hairs standing on end. Listen closely to how Cline lets the melody breathe beneath his solo; he is adept at not overcrowding. As soon as I wrote that, I realized I probably have written myself into a corner vis a vis Richard Thompson’s “Hard on Me,” which leaves you very little room to breathe; perhaps Cline’s and Thompson’s respective solos are perfect counter-points. Regardless, both are two of my favorite guitar solos of all time.
“Sugar Mountain” & “Carey”
Richard Thompson was born of the 60s folk scene in England, and while I know Neil Young is not British, if you’re going to use the word “candyfloss” in your lyrics, you’re going to be pegged as British. (I don’t care if “candyfloss” is also said in Canada.) And what’s a Neil Young song if it’s not following by a Joni Mitchell song? Not every Joni Mitchell song is perfection, but “Carey” comes pretty close to it – the lyrics and melody are on the same page, and they create a truly evocative song that just blows cooly on you like a breeze in from Africa. With “Carey” I hope the playlist has come full circle to folk music and a woman’s voice that doesn’t shout but instead just breathes.