Barton Hollow by The Civil Wars is a record that I have returned to again and again over the past few months with increasing regularity and it is home to a collection of some of the most wonderfully crafted songs released in 2011. Comprising of Californian singer Joy Williams and Alabama based singer-songwriter John Paul White, their marriage of folk, country and blues performed with sparse acoustic arrangments and devastatingly brilliant boy-girl harmonies, earnt them two Grammy nominations for both Best Folk Album and Best Country Album. Only one listen to the album is enough to know that these nominations in two separate genres were more than justified.
The singers discovered their musical chemistry together in Nashville where assorted songwriters had been assembled to write radio singles for a current Country band. After introductions and barely a few minutes in each others company, they started to write music together and they instantly knew they had struck upon something special and decided to see where they could go with it on their own. Williams’ background up until that point had been from more of a ‘pop’ perspective while Alabama resident White honed his songwriting chops amongst the thriving musical hub that is his hometown. Despite coming from two different musical backgrounds, the songs that were beginning to form along with the pitch-perfect blend of their voices, resulted in an album that effortlessly blurred the lines between American Folk, Country and Blues. It is an album filled with lyrical sorrow yet the pretty acoustics guitar lines and achingly soulful harmonies light up these songs like the sun cracking through a darkened room.
Album opener ’20 Years’ is one such example with a sunny acoustic hook and an intriguing opening verse as their voices swoop over the lyrics “There’s a note underneath your front door, that I wrote 20 years ago, yellow paper and a faded picture, and a secret in an envelope”. The contents of which we never do find out, but the lyrical tone of the album is firmly set out with this song as they yearn for redemption as a mandolin, glockenspiel and shimmering strings add a warmth to the songs heart.
A jaunty acoustic guitar propels the optimistic ‘Iv’e Got This Friend’ as White and Williams trade verses as a “Loveless romatic” boy and a girl who “Sings a song that sounds a lot like his” , court each other teasingly. Both singers get to display their smooth, soulful vocals solo as well as demonstrating their great blend of harmony on the choruses. For a girl whose roots are not traditionally in Country Music, Williams delivery is as authentic as you are ever likely to hear.
The piano led ‘C’est La Mort’ combines a moving tale of companionship with a stirring string arrangement that is subtle yet powerful all at the same time. It is at the albums mid-point that they really begin to shine with the stunning ‘Poison and Wine’. The two singers trade lines of a story that shows a relationship that has broken down, yet both parties are trying so hard to fight it. Its opening key line from White “You know everything I want you to” is shot down immediately by Williams’ “I know everything you don’t want me to”. As the song continues, the contradictions continue to come to the fore as the lyrics unravel. These heartbreaking sentiments are wrapped up in melody so simple in nature but compelling with a warm charm that is aided by White’s best vocal on the album. Piano and acoustic guitar guide the song with subtle accompaniment from marching band drums as the song gradually build with the vocals gaining an intensity to their delivery as the song progresses with White’s impassioned cry of “I don’t have a choice but I still choose you” as they reach the songs rousing climax. It is a song that it is impossible not to warm to on its first listen and it only gets better with each subsequent outing.
‘My Fathers Father’ brings back memories of the Robert Plant and Alison Krauss partnership that resulted in one of the biggest success stories of 2007 with their Raising Sand album. The Civil Wars on record have the same chemistry that made that album so easy to like. Two voices not trying to outshine each other but complementing each other perfectly. This is shown brilliantly again on ‘Falling’, one of the duo’s first songs written together. The verses are powered by the vocals with the faintest of backings from White’s acoustic guitar before the swooning chorus introduces a beautiful string arrangement that fills up the song with one the albums most compelling melodies.
The albums title track is country blues stomp that injects a powerful jolt of primal acoustic blues to proceedings and could have been something that The White Stripes could have done circa- ‘Elephant’. Album closer ‘Birds Of A Feather’ has a similar bluesy tone and possesses a shanty groove that finishes the album in great style.
Overall the album does not stray from the sparse acoustic arrangements that The Civil Wars live shows are built upon, but it keeps the listeners interest with dashes of instrumentation throughout that gives these brilliant songs an added depth. What this album demonstrates too is The Civil Wars are traditional songwriters that put the songs heart and melody right to the forefront of proceedings. There is no shying away and the lyrics at times make for uncomfortable listening with their brutal honesty, but the perfect blend of their voices and the endearing charm of these songs make for a wonderful album, rich in all the qualities that make traditional songwriting, writing songs for the songs sake, something worth celebrating.