The Civil Wars: Barton Hollow Review

I don’t know about you, but a band name like The Civil Wars immediately evokes strong images of the American South for me; those rustic surroundings, Baptist Church revival meetings, soul food and great rolling fields.

Of course, these are just the clichéd perceptions of a Brit who’s never been anywhere further south than Washington DC. But when you listen to Barton Hollow, the sound is as faithful to this stereotype as can be without actually using a banjo in any of your tracks.

Joy Williams and John Paul White are The Civil Wars and, having met at a songwriter’s workshop in Tennessee, have been making waves ever since as they carry on the proud tradition of guitar driven storytelling with their strongly rooted folk / indie rock sound.

Barton Hollow is their first full length studio album since their 2009 offering Poison & Wine, an EP that brought this dynamic duo to the world’s attention after finding airtime on mainstream tv shows like Grey’s Anatomy, and is named after place that apparently doesn’t even exist.

The first thing that comes to mind on Barton Hollow is how wonderfully perfect their William’s and White’s voices sound in unison. Their new record is liberally sprinkled with two point harmonies that meander, lazily drift and then soar as needs dictate.

The Civil Wars vocal acrobatics compliment each other so well, as on the simple yet astounding chorus for I’ve Got This Friend, it’s as if someone designed their voices with the express point of making beautiful music.

And simplicity is how they play it, with Barton Hollow completely lacking in bombast and pretence; opting for a stripped down, acoustic sound where most tracks are simply arranged with minimal instrumentation and no ostentatious musicianship.

Extra instruments such as bowed strings and slide guitars sometimes make an appearance, but these are mostly absent; leaving plenty of space for those powerful vocal harmonies of theirs. Even percussion is mostly non existent, aside from the rhythm provided by the ever-present acoustic guitar.

If I had any complaints it would be that this stripped down, one paced sound can hamper the flow of The Civil Wars music. After listening all the way through this album, it feels as though some of the tracks can be a little samey with their melancholic, almost syrupy quality.

It’s not that Bart Hollow is loaded with filler, rather there’s not that much variety between most of the songs here. With that said, there are strong songs aplenty that can be plucked off of this album though.

One such example is Barton Hollow’s title track, where Williams and White prove they can up the ante when they choose to. The spirited gospel stylings fit nicely with that Southern mood I’ve been banging on about, and the energy of this track is matched by some dark, redemptive lyrics delivered with fearsome gusto.

Then there’s the single instrumental piece on the album, Violet Hour, which is definitely my favourite track. Words cannot do it justice, as a reoccurring minor chord that rings out like a church bell, unrelenting piano arpeggios and deliberately slow strings help the guitar to create something really beautiful yet desperately sad.

Violet Hour wouldn’t feel out of place in an introspective montage at the climax of a particularly tragic film. I’d go as far as to say it could end up on the big screen, or perhaps over the top of a particularly heart wrenching scene of a popular medical drama.

Barton Hollow’s own finale is a little unexpected, though fun, as The Civil Wars’ rework Michael Jackson’s Billy Jean to own signature style. With this much slower and bluesier interpretation, you can tell Williams and White are having fun with this track, adding a little variety and nice finishing touch to their debut.

With its brazen blues sound, some excellent song writing and incredible vocal work, Barton Hollow is definitely worth a listen; but this album is perhaps most suited to those diehard acoustic folk fans who like their country music stripped down and melancholic.

Jack Oughton

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Dates ‘n stuff

February 2012