A broad, somewhat misleading perception of who singer-songwriter and producer John Paul White is and what he does was established instantly five years ago with the success and broad impact of “ Barton Hollow,” the hit first album by the Americana duo The Civil Wars. He was one half of the Wars; singer-songwriter Joy Williams was the other. And their title song, and its video in particular, cemented an image of a hard-shouting, haunted couple on the verge of fierce, passionate conflict (as the group name suggested) and—perhaps more to the point—on the verge of hard rock. In practice, the instrumentation was more often than not acoustic, with bluegrass musicians accompanying Mr. White’s sophisticated acoustic guitar picking. The duo went on to win four Grammy awards for their two albums together. Their rough male-female harmonies and dramatic performance interactions sparked a renewed interest in “he and she” duos in Americana, country and rock alike in the years since.
The Civil Wars themselves, a musical pairing only, had called it quits by the time their second, self-titled album was released in 2013, a set with a notable uptick in the percentage of tracks that leaned loud. The sometimes riveting tension in their performances was derived not so much from the volume level, though, or even from the dramatic clash of two talented singers, but from the edgy friction built into the dark song lyrics and ethereal, melodic music they were writing. It doesn’t necessarily demand a duo to work those elements—and John Paul White’s new solo album, “Beulah,” proves it.