Jack Hardy smiles with his arm draped over a cannon on the cover of Civil Wars, in a photograph apparently posed on the lawn of a state capitol or city square where that formidable weapon serves as a reminder of 19th century armed combat. One of the wars Hardy has in mind with the title is, in fact, the American Civil War, and he devotes the album's longest song, the nearly nine-minute "The 111th Pennsylvane," to a fictional first-person account of life for a foot soldier of the 1860s. It's a song in the long tradition of such antiwar efforts, as the narrator finds war more and more disturbing, lamenting in the chorus, "Oh, what I did not know." But the War Between the States is only one of the civil wars Hardy brings up on the album. There is, for instance, the war between the partners in a longtime romantic couple in "Double-Edged Sword." "Das Kapital" and "The Zephyr (Take It Slow)" encounter the class war undertaken between the rich and the poor. And "Johnny's Gone" concerns "the rock and roll wars" in which traveling musicians engage in search of "fortune and fame." Typically, Hardy presents his observations in sharply written lines and then sings them with bitten-off phrasing over folk-rock arrangements. Dobro player David Hamburger provides much of the musical color, and the Roches chime in here and there with harmony vocals. Although original compositions, Hardy's songs tend to be steeped in folk tradition and often sound like newly discovered old folk songs, albeit with a modern sensibility that reveals itself over time.
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