Front Porch (Thirty Tigers/Cooking Vinyl)
JOHN PAUL WHITE
The Hurting Kind (Single Lock Records/Cooking Vinyl)
Yes, they’re still being paired, No, that isn’t unfair. You don’t make a couple of damn fine albums together, split with barely an explanation, and expect never the twain to meet again in someone’s write up when you put your albums out within a few weeks of each other.
Somehow, some six years after the strange, silent, non-acrimonious-yet-somehow-still-acrimonious ending to a brief but glorious burst as The Civil Wars, and despite both of them having recorded, alone and with others since then, Joy Williams and John Paul White still feel like complementary – if no longer complimentary – artists.
These two albums take up elements of their sound – the country roots for White; the folk leanings for Williams – and build whole albums around them. Each too opt for a sound and a tone that suggests prelapsarian leanings, if one were to mark the arrival of the CD and its glossy sonic traps as the fall of a certain golden age.
For Williams, whose voice has always sounded like a California take on the eastern lowlands (more Stevie Nicks than Emmylou Harris, you could say), the emphasis is on gently ruminative, often sad, songs which stop short of melancholy.
Some of that veering away from despair can be put down to a strand of faith which weaves its way in and out of these songs, and since hers is not an apocalyptic faith, there is more comfort offered than souls wrecked.
But I think it’s fair to say that Williams’ natural inclination vocally is to look over the cliff drop and consider the sacrifice wasteful, letting sorrow nestle in the creases of her voice rather than occupy the core.
In that endeavour she is aided by producer Kenneth Pattengale of The Milk Carton Kids (a still intact duo which recently moved from barebones, two voice/two guitars structures to a full band) whose atmosphere is so warm you could use this album as a winter comforter.
Guitars, fiddles and mandolin are all curves rather than sharp ends; the bass seems to mostly hum in accompaniment; backing voices stay just out of sight but close enough to feel their radiation; and everything has the feel of if not the front porch of the title then at least the kitchen, with songs sung around the table not yet cleared from dinner.
Front Porch is quite a lovely listen, a pleasure to have on. It isn’t though a compelling listen, Williams’ songs, like her voice, stopping short of the powerful pull that would take you emotionally or musically over the edge. You can’t help but wonder if a sliver of combativeness or contradiction in the writing room could have heightened things that necessary extra step or two.
White’s fuller sounding The Hurting Kind takes its cues from a countrypolitan era: strings as regular visitors and harp not afraid to drop in; voice ready to reach for trembling-with-feeling but at all times near and just exposed enough; pedal steel front, back and centre; bass upright and walking; drums and piano for gentle motion rather than snapping us to attention.
Even when some of these background sounds take a central role, whether it be a kind of Spector-ish thickness in the beat or a guitar clearing some space, it happens so smoothly, even politely, that you would feel churlish objecting. After all Roy Orbison or George Jones – to whom a good portion of this album might be a love letter – coped just fine with the like.
Across the ten songs there’s a careworn aspect to Wihite’s tales of relationships bending in the turbulence, for these aren’t the first love rodeos for any protagonist. But cynicism isn’t at home yet, and at times, such as in the title track, you could almost picture a kind of dedicated innocence, a refusal to look closely at history when rescue might be in the next door.
As much as White’s songs are better written, more substantial than his former partner’s, here again I wonder what he might do with a tug or two out of the period costume and character, rather than interior, driven emotion he affects. There’s a space here for an extra flavour, another voice even.
(Tomorrow, Wind Back Wednesday explores the end times for Joy Williams and John Paul White as The Civil Wars.)