Beulah is the debut album by John Paul White - the male half of popular Grammy award winning altish-country duo The Civil Wars. Plaintive yet ambitious, Beulah takes in folk ballads, campfire songs, gothic acoustic pop and a bit of swamp-drenched southern rock. No doubt fans of his previous band will love this accomplished album.
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John Paul White is the dude out of the Civil Wars, a delightfully serene indie pop band with pretty much none of the aggressions their name suggests. If ever an artist barely needed to strike out on their own, it’s him, but that's no reason: ‘Beulah’ allows him the space to become even sparser and differently dramatic, creating a quiet but somehow earth-scorched Americana that reminds of the baroque futilities of Case Studies, the ominously barren twang of Hank Williams and the slightly hard-edged verses of Jason Molina.
The shorthand: modern folk music. The shorter hand: NPR bait. ‘Beulah’ is a lilting, primarily acoustic record that relies on the voice getting haughty and the scene getting serious -- “What’s So” posits his sighing voice against a backdrop of spectral harmonies, jagged fret-climbing riffs and sly twang. It’s a country epic that never needs to climax -- rather, it just barrels forward. The light touches of “The Once and Future Queen” garnish what’s otherwise an extremely still ho-hum strum piece, one that suggests all you need to do is deliver a punchy vocal performance from a hushed place.
It’s ultimately White’s ability to execute that makes this record what it is: his voice is a perfect mix of convicted and wavering throughout, earning the record its minor key doubt while keeping it vastly impressive. It’s to his advantage he keeps things dark, with “Fight For You” sounding like a Decemberists track extracted of its quirks and replenished with an almost melodically hard rock dedication. On “Hate The Way You Love Me”, he plucks like he’s twinkling, but keeps it overwhelmingly sincere, never once abating from his stark, suffocating performance. So there you go: heart and heartland.
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