Reviews of new pop music releases

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Records are rated on a scale of one (awful) to four (classic) stars


'The Civil Wars' (Sensibility Music/Columbia)

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

Joy Williams and John Paul White are the two artists who make up The Civil Wars, whose name is also on the album at hand.

I don't know whether they are really as dysfunctional as they seem from a distance, but they act the part well.

Their first album, "Barton Hollow," featured songs of wrong and longing, Möbius-strip harmonies, and tales of enchantment and dissolution.

During a tour later, they split, issuing a statement about "internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition."

Somehow, here they are again, in an album produced by eclectic visionary Charlie Peacock, with Rick Rubin on the rustic romancer "I Had Me a Girl." Ms. Williams' pure, dulcet tones are more present than Mr. White's. Unlike "Barton Hollow," the pair loses some intimacy to bolder arrangements and instrumentation (as in the bucking blues of "Oh Henry"). What "The Civil Wars" loses in sonic proximity, however, it gains in lyrical strength.

"The One That Got Away" has lines like "I got caught up by the chase/ And you got high on every little game/ I wish you were the one that got away." Whether the duo work better together or apart, "The Civil Wars" is heartbreaking stuff.

-- A.D. Amorosi, Philadelphia Inquirer

Sam Phillips 'Push Any Button' (Littlebox Recording)

3 stars = Good
Ratings explained

Although she had been putting out albums since the early '80s, Sam Phillips retreated from the corporate music business after 2008's "Don't Do Anything," choosing instead to make songs available via a private subscription program she called the Long Play and to serve as music director for Amy Sherman-Palladino's TV series "Bunheads," as she had for "Gilmore Girls." In 2011, she released a sampler of a dozen of the 44 Long Play songs, but the self-released "Push Any Button" is her first publicly available new album in five years.

Clocking in at 29 minutes, it's a compact set of 10 fun, barbed, clattering songs that integrate upbeat rockabilly guitars and sweet countrypolitan strings into the artful torch-song style she has mined since 2001's "Fan Dance." "When I'm Alone" and "You Won't Know" rock more than anything she's done since her baroque-pop period in the '90s, and ballads such as "No Time Like Now" and "Going" rank with her best.

-- Steve Klinge, Philadelphia Inquirer


Buddy Guy 'Rhythm & Blues' (RCA)

3 1/2 stars = Very good
Ratings explained

On "I Go by Feel," Buddy Guy uses the title phrase to explain, among other things, his approach to playing the blues. But even the greats, like Mr. Guy, can use help along the way in melding inspiration with craft and enhancing the artist's gifts. And he gets that from producer-drummer-writer Tom Hambridge.

The result is a focused, hard-hitting two-CD set of 21 tracks that clocks in at just over 80 minutes total. The 77-year-old Mr. Guy gets plenty of chances to flash his prodigious guitar chops, but he does so in the context of taut, well-structured songs that don't stint on feel as they range from driving straight blues to swaggering roadhouse R&B and ballads brooding and soul-tinged.

Guests are on hand, including Kid Rock, Keith Urban and Steven Tyler, but they just complement the main attraction, whom Mr. Hambridge supplies with songs that at times resonate with references to the singer's own life. And with "Meet Me in Chicago," there is also a welcome alternative to the well-worn Windy City anthem "Sweet Home Chicago."

-- Nick Cristiano, Philadelphia Inquirer



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