The leadoff single from Joy Williams’ new album is a song called “The Trouble With Wanting,” and that’s a subject her fans know all about. For the last five or six years, most of them have wanted to get, if not the hell freezing over of a Civil Wars reunion, then a Williams solo album that at least harks back to the warblin’ and warrin’ duo they briefly knew and loved. Rather than satisfy that rootsy craving, she held out on them with 2015’s synthy “Venus,” a very good but very different record that was more Kate Bush than Sam Bush. After the Wars’ tumultuous split, that album’s more electronic and ethereal sound was her rebound relationship.
Is it ever too late to give the people what they want? “Front Porch,” Williams’ second post-Civil Wars album, certainly does that in a big — which is to say, small-scaled and intimate — way. Fortunately, it sounds like it’s what she wants, too. In the title song, when she sings “The light is on, what you waiting for? Come on back to the front porch,” Williams might be intending it as a message to a prodigal lover, but it could also be a note to self, assuring herself in so many metaphorical words that it’s okay to nuzzle up against a mandolin again. Going back to that sound doesn’t feel like a concession to fan demand: This may be the best, most natural and inevitable music she’s made.
Her new producer, Kenneth Pattengale of the Milk Carton Kids, turns out to be as strong a civil-union partner for her as John Paul White was, even if he’s not stepping up for any shared leads or participating in the writing. Probably nobody in 2019 has a better sense of how to match up vocal harmonizing and minimal acoustic instrumentation than a member of the Milk Carton Kids, and not least of them the Milk Carton Kid who was nominated for a “best engineered album” Grammy this last go-round. (Matt Ross-Spang takes the engineering credit here, and maybe merits his own Grammy nomination.)You would be hard-pressed to find a better sung, better played and certainly better recorded album of so-called string-band music, even in the Kids’ own catalog, which is saying something. Without even looking up whether it’s a digital or analog recording, we can just say it’s warm enough to double as a heating blanket when those nights on the front porch get nippy.
That glow — found both in Williams’ exceptionally open-hearted throat and Pattengale’s rendering of it — comes in handy, because there is a chill running through some of Williams’ songs. Like the good gospel singer she grew up as, she knows that heaven sounds a lot more rewarding if you frontload its promise with some worldly distress. And so dolor and Dobro go together to some extent on “Front Porch,” which seesaws a lot between tormented longing and lights at ends of tunnels. It definitely feels sunnier than those Civil Wars records did, partly because fewer of the songs transpire in minor keys — although the opening “Canary” and “When Creation Was Young” do get back to that kind of quiet-apocalypse-in-the-Appalachias feel you remember from “Barton Hollow.” A good mixture of the two moods is found in “All I Need.” The determinedly contented chorus (message: I do not want what I haven’t got) literally sounds right out of an old church hymnal. The verses, though, make it seem like she’s having to really talk herself into it; when she sings “Heaven send your help and gather ‘round me,” it doesn’t sound like she’s altogether sure the cavalry, or Calvary, will show up at all.
With all that said, there are songs of pure sweetness on “Front Porch.” Moods don’t get much more carefree than they do in the vintage folk-pop of “One and Only,” a love song that’s about as close to a pure Everly Brothers cop as a song with one female lead singer can get. The victory sounds a little more hard-fought, but just as sweet, in “No Place Like You,” a more soulful pop ballad in which Williams is accompanied only by acoustic guitar as she lets a slight and rare bit of rasp creep into her porcelain trills. “Hotel St. Cecilia” gets a little sexier, imagining the possibility of a “Same Time Next Year” scenario with an ex who may or may not show. “When Creation Was Young” is one of those numbers that sounds a lot weightier, but it has to, just because she has to invoke creation myths in the act of convincing her kids that her eternal love for them actually predates the earth’s origin stories.
Assistance is rendered by familiar Nashville writer names like Natalie Hemby, Jon Randall, Liz Rose and Caitlyn Smith, who help her find a tone that definitely isn’t contemporary country but doesn’t feel as retro-hillbilly as the Civil Wars could, either. (Although when she adds the line “I may ramble” to “No Place Like You,” she comes close.) In the duo days, purists could argue whether their style was like a dress she was putting on, coming out of her poppier origins, or she really had always been a Kentucky woman trapped in a California girl’s body. Even as she reverts back a little closer to that style, she comfortably transcends it: she’s not just a deeper-than-the-holler-back girl, either.