The Civil Wars – BARTON HOLLOW

In the music business, year-end lists have become as predictable as the New Years holiday itself. It’s that most wonderful time of the year when critics and musicians alike sound off on what they feel have been the most noteworthy albums they happened to have picked up during the past 12 months. It’s an unnecessary and pretentious business, but there is something undeniably endearing in writing these sorts of self-indulgent lists. Personally, I think we all may have watched “High Fidelity” a few too many times. But I digress.

One of the albums that appeared in a number of these lists is “Barton Hollow” by the Civil Wars. The band (consisting of John Paul White on vocals and guitar and Joy Williams on vocals and piano) got their start in the music industry as individual songwriters before they met in 2008. This fateful meeting, of course, would ultimately lead to the formation of their now widely-acclaimed folk/pop duo that has carried them to the heights of critical praise as well as various nominations from the Grammy’s, CMT Music Awards, the Country Music Association Awards, and the Americana Music Association Awards.

As far as their debut album is concerned, it must be said that “Barton Hollow” is certainly the kind of record that would resonate perfectly on an especially cloudy day.  Unrequited love, loneliness, disenchantment, and death would be a brief synopsis of what many of the songs focus on. However, despite the morose nature of most of the album, the Civil Wars bring each song to life with their heartfelt lyrics and a captivating style of folk guitar that compliments the often-harmonized vocals nicely. Sure, a lot of the songs might depress the hell out of you, but they sure do sound nice while they do it.

This is not to imply that with the 12 songs on “Barton Hollow” there is any shortage of variety. Far from it. Alongside the songs of love and loss, White and Williams also venture into a more cinematic realm; most prominently with the title track of the album. Appropriately the hardest-hitting song in this collection, it almost feels like the synopsis of a Western film set to music. (“I’m a dead man walkin’ here”; “Did that full moon force my hand, or that unmarked hundred grand?”) On the other hand, while some songs are certainly quite dramatic in their approach, other tracks on the record (“Forget Me Not”, “Birds of a Feather”) take a more straight-forward direction and are notably reminiscent of classic country ballads that may have been sung in the 60’s by someone like Emmylou Harris. What’s more, the duo fits so comfortably in to this mold that they never fall into the trap of sounding too dated or out of context, a feat which would be hard to duplicate in many other modern bands.

Although the highlights from “Barton Hollow” are many, the real shining moments lie in the love ballads. The greatest examples of how well these songs function on this album can be found in the two tracks “Falling” and “Poison and Wine”. What is remarkable about these pieces are both their stark simplicity in their message and how profound they can be at the same time. The respective chorus lines of “I can’t help falling out of love with you” in “Falling” and “I don’t love you, but I always will” from “Poison and Wine” are somehow both tragic and deeply romantic in their blunt honesty. It’s hard to pinpoint either of these songs as romantic statements or the chronicles of a disintegrating relationship, but perhaps it’s that grey area that makes the pieces so intriguing.

With all of that being said however, even a duo with a captivating prowess of lyrics and musicianship is nothing without a distinct chemistry between its two members. Luckily, White and Williams have no such shortage to worry about. Many fans have observed that from watching the Civil Wars and listening to their music, one can get the impression that the two are in love themselves; which I think is a considerable, if unintended, compliment. While I doubt there is truly any scandalous romance actually taking place within the band, there is a natural conveyance of warmth in the group’s deliverance. The magnetism between the two and the intimacy that radiates in each song gives the impression that the listener has been given special access to eavesdrop on a private conversation between two lovers. In this context, how could anyone not sympathize with every heartbreaking line that they sing? It’s this one characteristic that is the most arresting quality of the entire album.

So is “Barton Hollow” really deserving of all the recent praise that it has garnered? Absolutely. Considering that this is the first long-playing album released by The Civil Wars, it stands as a remarkable effort and it’s not hard to see how it has made such an impression on so many writers in the music press. The pure emotion captured in these recordings and how profound the songs can be is a real testament to the talents of both Williams and White. The album does still have its imperfections; sure. One could argue that near the close of the record, things start to drag a bit and some songs may not grab one’s attention as successfully as some of the highlights like “Barton Hollow” or Poison and Wine” (While it is a well-performed piece, the singular instrumental song “This Velvet Hour” doesn’t seem to add much to the album). But even so, these falters are minimal and the best points of the album certainly overshadow any imperfections that it carries.

Perhaps “Barton Hollow” isn’t a perfect “masterpiece” of an album, but with such a strong effort as this debut release, one can’t help but expect some great things to come from the Civil Wars as they grow into their newfound fame.

One of the best albums of 2011? Yeah, I’m sure it would be on my list too.

~ Stephen

My Rating : 4 out of 5
Highlights: “20 Years”, “Barton Hollow”, “Poison and Wine”, “Falling”