Tuesday, February 1, 2011

The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow (Album Review)

I’ve gushed about The Civil Wars a few times on here and I’m really excited to finally be able to review their enchanting debut album, Barton Hollow. Rarely does a musical group absolutely nail who they are and what they offer on the first album as well as The Civil Wars have done. But the blending that takes place between Joy Williams and John Paul White is a rare thing indeed. Joy’s sunny California pop sensibilities and John Paul’s rich, murky Alabama alt-country, while both nice enough on their own, combine to create something altogether new, extraordinary and mysterious. As great as the individual parts are, the sum ends up on a completely different level. When the two sing together, what you hear goes beyond talent and chemistry to produce a spontaneous reaction that I think surprises and charms them as much as it does us. I’ve sat with this album since November and it was the only non-Christmas album I listened to during the holidays. I couldn’t get away from it. Like a layered story that you come back to more than once to uncover new subtleties, Barton Hollow is filled with songs, melodies, characters, instrumentation and moments that unwrap themselves more and more with each repetition. The Civil Wars are immediately accessible enough to snag even the most casual of listeners, but they’re truly enjoyed and experienced best with multiple spins of the album.

The beauty of The Civil Wars is what they do with so few ingredients. Their two voice, one or two instrument approach gives their songs the illusion of a fragile veneer cloaking their rock solid songwriting. Masterstroke producer Charlie Peacock did an incredible job of preserving this tenderness and using sparse instrumentation to undergird their performances. Throughout all of Barton Hollow, instruments and atmospheres float in and out, enhancing each moment but never staying for the entirety of the song. Take opener “20 Years” for example. John Paul’s acoustic provides the foundation of the song as subtle percussion, mandolin, violin and keys dance around it. The same acoustic-led unobtrusive orchestration feel is present in “To Whom It May Concern,” “Falling,” “The Girl With The Red Balloon” and “My Father’s Father.” Joy has an impressive melodic touch on the piano as well and her skills show up nicely in “C’est la Mort,” “Poison & Wine” and the haunting instrumental “The Violet Hour.” By the way, I love when an instrumentalist does something clever with the music and I absolutely love the way the chiming piano chords that open and close “The Violet Hour” are made to sound like an old grandfather clock. There are a few songs on the album that get a fuller instrumental bed to work with as well. “Forget Me Not” has a moving pedal steel, violin and stand up bass. “Birds Of A Feather” has an electric guitar, bass and minimal drum kit. “I’ve Got This Friend” has a tasty banjo, mandolin, bass, pedal steel and occasional drums. However, some of the best use of instrumentation is found on the title track. “Barton Hollow” feels like there’s a marching band pulsing behind Joy and John Paul even though it’s just a dobro, a kick drum, bass, some percussion and a violin. It’s the power that they create singing together that transforms the song, and really the entire album, into something else entirely. The phrase, “it’s a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there,” doesn’t apply to the idyllic Barton Hollow and this musical postcard from The Civil Wars is a welcoming and inviting “wish you were here.”

"Forget Me Not" - The Civil Wars (Barton Hollow)


  1. Love this sound!!! Sweet simplicity, NOT over done. Vocals blend so well, that they are part of the music. Nice song. Would love for country music to sound like country again... less is always better when you have a good song and someone to deliver it as well as John and Joy did. Thanks!

  2. The musical chemistry between Joy Williams and John Paul White results in music that will send a chill down your spine. Straddling several genres of music from folk, country, and roots/Americana, The Civil Wars are the real deal. They are a great example that less is more in this era of over produced, commercialized "music" that panders to the lowest common denominator. Support these talented musicians and buy their album, see them live and tell your friends.