Joy Williams is a folk singer/songwriter from Nashville, Tennessee. She’s best known as the feminine half of the fantastic country duo, The Civil Wars, but she’s made quite the name for herself as a solo act as well, working mostly in the contemporary Christian world. She debuted with a self-titled LP in 2001 and went on to be fairly prolific through 201 before she and her then writing partner, John Paul White, found breakout success with The Civil Wars. After the group announced an indefinite hiatus in 2012 and fully dissolved in 2014, Williams quickly returned to her solo career, reasing Venus to mixed reviews in 2015. After a longer period of silence than usual, she’s back with Front Porch, which sees Joy return to her folk roots in new and exciting ways.
The album opens with two of the best country songs I’ve heard all year in the opener, “Canary,” and the title track. Both tracks live and die by the fantastic vocal performances by Williams which decorate the entirety of this record. She finds a perfect mix of powerful, emotive singing and technically proficient executions of well written vocal melodies. Additionally, Kenneth Pattengale’s production does her a big favor by avoiding the trap of over correction and instead leaving every imperfection in place for a full picture of just how good she is.
Joy isn’t the only vocalists doing excellent work on this record, however, as Anthony DaCosta’s harmonies are fantastic. Tracks like “The Trouble with Wanting,” and the closer, “Look How Far We’ve Come,” are driven by airtight harmony lines in which DaCosta serves as a perfect counterpoint to Williams’ lead. Their voices blend remarkably well and he knows when to take a backseat and when to join her in the spotlight. No folk or bluegrass album can succeed without strong harmonies and Front Porch is no exception.
Instrumentally, the record is quite impressive as well. DaCosta and Pattengale share acoustic guitar duties and nearly every cut is the better for it. From the rhythmic backing on “When Does a Heart Move On,” to the sparse but complex lines on “Hotel St. Cecilia,” the guitar is consistently a driving force at the very front of every mix. Thanks to more great production, it’s able to set the tone of the record quite well.
The rest of the band is excellent as well. A hand full of strong mandolin and violin tracks decorate most of the album, most notably the fantastic “All I Need,” but none of them are as prominent as Russ Pahl’s pedal steel guitar. On the most country-esque cuts like “Be With You,” the steel guitar fits perfectly in the arrangement, never overpowering but consistently adding a howling melody to the already strong collection.
Perhaps the record’s best quality comes in Joy Williams’ lyricism. This is particularly true in the middle of the album with cuts like “When Creation Was Young,” and “Preacher’s Daughter.” The former is packed with powerful imagery which mirrors the powerful nature of the love it centers on. The latter is a wonderfully grounded tale of Williams’ childhood, with a heartbreaking final verse. Each and every song on this album showcases Joy’s incredible songwriting prowess and it’s a treat to hear.
Some of the arrangements are a bit of a mixed bag, specifically in terms of chord progression. While a track like the relatively simple “No Place Like You,” has such a fantastic, jazz-gospel inspired progression that it elevates the song far above what it would generally be, others like “One and Only,” make a few questionable choices which the track itself struggles to overcome in the execution. It’s the record’s only misstep, but it’s fairly noticeable when it’s at it’s worst.
Overall, I enjoyed Front Porch quite a bit. Venus was criticized for embracing modernity a bit too much and shedding much of Joy’s folk sensibilities, and while I’m a bit more partial to that record than most, it’s nice to hear her come back to her roots once again. She has a unique ability to make more traditional folk and bluegrass styles accessible to fans and non-fans alike, and it would be a shame to waste that.
Front Porch is an intimate collection of simple, well-written folk songs which is elevated by fantastic performances and excellent writing.