Joy Williams is one of the more intrigue-laden personalities in Americana. Her immensely popular and gifted duo, The Civil Wars, broke up roughly five years ago, ostensibly over the mythical “creative differences.” Previous to teaming up with John Paul White, she’d mostly been known as a Christian artist, but her first post-CW album, 2015’s Venus, took on more of an ethereal pop tone. Around that same time, she again played against type as a vengeful ex-girlfriend in Showtime’s short-lived but much-beloved (by me, anyway) series Roadies. And most recently, after announcing a new album late last year, she abruptly canceled the supporting tour only a few dates in, citing a “difficult and blindsiding personal matter” in the accompanying Instagram post.
So, what to make of the new album, Front Porch? If you’re a fan of Williams’ work with The Civil Wars, you’ll be pleased to hear a return to that form on the album. Written mostly with other female artists and recorded while three months pregnant (she’s since given birth to a daughter, Poppy), you’ll hear plenty of fiddle, lap steel and dobro, all in service of Williams’ exquisite voice. The lead song, “Canary” (written with Caitlyn Smith and Angelo Petraglia), has her stretching out the word “siiiiiinnnnnnngggggg” until it sweetly fades away. “The Trouble With Wanting” (written with Natalie Hemby) features gorgeous harmonies from Anthony da Costa and Kenneth Pattengale, and “Hotel St. Cecilia” (written with Liz Rose and Emily Shackelton) is likely the most deceptively gorgeous come-on you’ll hear this year: “I wrote you this letter, and I meant it/I oughta know better, I still sent it.”
Williams’ Christian music background shows up, but in subtle ways. “Preacher’s Daughter” (written with Hemby and Rose) is a tribute to the singer’s late father, and “Be With You” has her hoping to find her partner once again, “When we cross over to the other side.” And “When Creation Was Young” (written with Hemby and Jon Randall), with its bluegrassy feel, contains references to Adam and Eve, serpents, and a time “Before hate was a word/And life found death.”
Williams has always been a passionate singer, one who’s very emotive on stage. At times, however, Front Porch has her tastefully dialing her voice back. Most noticeably, the title track (written with Rose and Shackelton) finds her sounding a bit fragile and almost childlike while singing, “If never you find what you’re looking for/Come on back to the front porch.” She’s welcoming, forgiving and forgetting. Along with other songs (“When Does a Heart Move On?”, “No Place Like You”), we could be led to speculate on the deeper meaning behind that Instagram post. Alas, the album was recorded well before that message, so we’ll have to be satisfied with these songs as they are, sung by her beautiful voice.
Front Porch was produced by Kenneth Pattengale (of The Milk Carton Kids), engineered by Matt Ross-Spang, mixed by Richie Biggs, mastered by Richard Dodd and recorded at House of Blues Studios in Nashville. Additional songwriters include Trent Dabbs, Cason Cooley, Matt Morris, and Paul Moak. Featured musicians include Pattengale (guitars, dobro and vocals), da Costa (guitar), Caitlin Canty (vocals), John Mailander (violin), Scott Mulvahill (bass), and Russ Pahl (pedal steel).