Guitar in hand and dressed in his signature black suit, John Paul White took the stage at The Red Room @ Cafe 939 near the campus of Boston's Berklee College of Music on June 22nd. He was on the road to promote Beulah, his first solo album since 2008, and his first release since The Civil Wars split in 2013 after the release of their self-titled sophomore outing.
The audience had already been treated to an opening set from The Secret Sisters, a powerhouse Muscle Shoals duo who also provided otherworldly backing vocals on select songs throughout White's set. Like White, they specialize in sad lyrics set to beautiful and somehow fun melodies packed with ethereal harmonies. They are currently working on their third studio album with producer Brandi Carlile, and I eagerly await a chance to listen and review it when it drops.
Nearly two full months prior to the release of Beulah, the audience of young Boston music students and enthusiasts got a sneak preview of the album almost in its entirety. The emotional journey on which White leads the listener ranges from vindictive ("Make You Cry") to determined ("Fight for You"), from self-punishment ("The Martyr" and "Hope I Die") to wistful ("Black Leaf"), and even pleading ("I've Been Over This Before").
The standouts here are the singles "The Martyr" and "What's So", both of which are the kinds of earworms listeners have come to expect from White's songwriting. The former will immediately burrow its way into your brain and leave you singing the chorus for days. Meanwhile the latter is more of a sleeper hit, and may take a few listens before you can fully appreciate it. But once it hits you, you don't stand a chance against it.
The sequencing is pretty strong all around, though the last two tracks "Hate the Way You Love Me" and "I'll Get Even", while enjoyable, send the album out with a bit of a whimper. Not the strongest selections of the bunch, but still good listens on their own.
As much as this is a new beginning for him, the similarities to White's work as a member of The Civil Wars can't be totally ignored. You can hear that Civil Wars sound on Beulah. In particular, "Fight For You" starts off with a driving acoustic riff reminiscent of "Barton Hollow" and it has structural similarities to "The One That Got Away". Meanwhile, "Make You Cry" evokes the same gentle, snowfall-like sound as "Sacred Heart". It's hard to avoid drawing comparisons between The Secret Sisters and Joy Williams, White's other half in The Civil Wars. While the Sisters have a career and distinct sound all their own, it feels like White knew his sound was missing the harmonies Williams provided, and the Sisters were the perfect partners for this project. The result is a haunting and moving sound, most noticeable on "I've Been Over This Before".
John Paul White makes a strong return to the music scene with Beulah. It's just the right mix of rock, folk, and country ballads. When The Civil Wars broke out, they were a force to be reckoned with, and it wasn't clear whether either of them could be successful without the other. Here, White proves himself as a solo artist. I look forward to playing this album over and over again the way I did both Civil Wars albums. His next release can't come soon enough.