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CD Reviews:
The Listening Room: The Civil Wars, Hugh Laurie and more...
 

By GARY GRAFF
@graffonmusic, Facebook.com/Gary Graff on Music

» See more SOUND CHECK

AMERICANA

The Civil Wars

"The Civil Wars"

(Sensibility Music/Columbia)

***

Here's a formula you don't see very often: release an album (2011's "Barton Hollow"), win some Grammy Awards, hook up with the top-selling singer of the day (Taylor Swift), break up -- and then release a second album. That's been the tale of the Civil Wars, the duo that just nine months ago announced an open-ended hiatus due to "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition." Not surprisingly, there's plenty of disagreement, ambivalence and ambiguity in the songs on its second album, with no sense of resolution and a general, open-ended message that "we love each other, but..." There are expressions of "I wish I'd never ever seen your face," "I wish you were the one that got away" and "I want to leave you/I want to lose us," while the raw and rocking (by Civil War standards) "I Had Me a Girl" seems to make direct allusions to those "differences of ambition." Listeners will having a field day digging for meaning in these songs -- though, in the case of "Sacred Heart," only if they understand French -- while Joy Williams and John Paul White seem content to let them hang out there for interpretation. Whatever conflicts exist, the two still sing together as compellingly as ever, including on covers of the Carter Family's "Tell Mama" and Smashing Pumpkins' "Disarm" -- the latter cleverly sequenced right after "Oh Henry" and its subtle murder threat that makes its "the killer in me is the killer in you" refrain a bit more resonant. Producer Charlie Peacock continues to do a solid job of framing the duo's delicate collaborations with instrumental textures -- filling things out on "The One That Got Away," "Eavesdrop" and "From This Valley," staying stripped-down on "Devil's Backbone" -- while the album-closing "D'Arline" is as raw and immediate as it gets, recorded on Williams' porch with an iPhone 4S. We can only hope Williams and White haven't gotten too far away from each other to keep the Civil Wars going for longer than its namesake conflict.

BLUES

Hugh Laurie, "Didn't It Rain" (Warner Bros.): **1/2

"House" may be shuttered, but this British actor is hardly slumming as a musician. He already had a tuneful track record before 2011's convincing "Let Them Talk," and "Didn't It Rain" -- produced by Rochester Adams grad Joe Henry -- finds Laurie expanding his blues even further, digging deeper into New Orleans (Dr. John's "Wild Honey," Alan Price's "Changes"), gospel ("Didn't It Rain," "Careless Love") and the Mississippi Delta ("Send Me to the 'Lectric Chair"). He also offers a fresh take on the standard "One For My Baby" and embraces the Old Tyme spirit of W.C. Handy's "St. Louis Blues" and Jelly Roll Morton's "I Hate a Man Like You," while guests such as Tom Jones, Irma Thomas and Allen Toussaint fortify the collection -- as do singers Jean McClain and Gaby Moreno from Laurie's sharp Copper Bottom Band.

New & Noteworthy:

Paul Allen and the Underthinkers, "Everywhere At Once" (Legacy): When you're the co-founder of Microsoft and the Experience Music Project, you can get folks like Joe Walsh, Derek Trucks, Heart and others to play on your first major label album.

Asking Alexandria, "From Death to Destiny" (Sumerian): The British heavy metal troupe's third album deals with a wider, and lighter range of subjects than the drugs and alcohol that populated 2011's "Reckless & Relentless."

Alfie Boe, "Storyteller" (Decca): The first U.S. release by the British singer, songwriter and Tony Award-winning star of Baz Luhrmann`s "La boheme."

Chick Corea, "The Vigil" (Concord Jazz): Stanley Clarke and Ravi Coltrane guest on this new outing by the famed jazz pianist and his latest band.

Brett Eldredge, "Bring You Back" (Atlantic Nashville): The country singer and songwriter's debut album is already off to a hit start thanks to the singles "Don't Ya" and "Raymond."

Icarus Line, "Slave Vows" (Agitated): The veteran Los ANgeles hardcore outfit welcomes new drummer Ben Hallett on its sixth album.

Iwrestledabearonce, "Late For Nothing" (Century Media): The fur continues to fly on the Louisiana metal troupe's third album.

Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, "Wassaic Way" (Route B): The folk progenies' latest was produced by Wilco's Jeff Tweedy and Pat Sansone and explores a fuller sound than its predecessors.

Brendan James, "Simplify" (Noble Steed): The New Hampshire troubadour used Kickstarter to help fund his third album.

Karnivool, "Asymmetry" (Density): The third album, and first in four years, from the Australia progressive rock quintet.

James LaBrie, "Impermanent Resonance" (InsideOutMusic): The Dream Theater keyboardist's latest solo album features the same instrumental crew from as its 2010 predecessor, plus ex-Soilwork guitarist Peter Wichers.

Christian McBride Trio, "Out Here" (Mack Avenue): The jazz bass hero leads his piano tree through a set of originals and covers of material by Oscar Peterson, Ahmad Jamal and Dr. Billy Taylor.

The Gary Burton Quartet, "Guided Tour" (Mack Avenue): The legendary vibraphonist and educator isn't resting on any laurels at 70, launching a new band and publishing a memoir that's due next month.

Newsted, "Heavy Metal Music" (Collective Sounds): Former Metallica bassist Jason Newsted gets back in the groove with his own band, including Staind guitarist Mike Mushok.

Norma Jean, "Wrongdoers" (Razor & Tie): The Georgia headbangers add strings, keyboards and other instrumental textures to the mix for its sixth studio album.

The Polyphonic Spree, "Yes, It's True" (Good): The chorale rock troupe from Dallas returns with its first set of all-new, non-holiday material since 2007's "The Fragile Army."

Lucy Schwartz, "Timekeeper" (Fortunate Fool): The Los Angeles singer-songwriter produced most of her third album herself, with Matt "Aqualung" Hales helping out on one track.

Chris Thile, "Bach: Sonatas & Partitas 1" (Nonesuch): The Nickel Creek, Punch Brothers and Goat Rodeo Sessions mandolin virtuoso shows his classical and violin chops on this salute to Johann Sebastian.

KT Tunstall, "Invisible Empire/Crescent Moon" (Blue Note): The Scottish singer-songwriter recorded the bulk of her fourth studio album in Arizona with Giant Sand's Howie Gelb, who also co-wrote two tracks and sang on one.

Volto!, "Incitare" (Fantasy): The first recorded outing by the jazz-rock fusion/progressive quartet featuring Tool drummer Danny Carey.

Walking Papers, "Walking Papers" (BKB/Sunyata): The first effort by the Seattle all-star group that includes Guns N'Roses/Velvet Revolver bassist Duff McKagan and Screaming Trees drummer Barrett Martin.

From The Vaults; It's a Beautiful Day, "Live at the Fillmore '68" (CMV); John Mellencamp, "Icon: Nothing Like I Planned" (UMe); Elvis Presley, "Elvis at Stax: Deluxe Edition" (RCA/Legacy); George Thorogood, "George Thorogood & the Destroyers" and "Move It On Over" (Rounder)

Soundtracks: Explosions in the Sky & David Wingo, "Prince Avalanche" (Temporary Residence)

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