With voices that wrap around each other and bend together, the Civil Wars’ debut album Barton Hollow is refreshing in that the music can actually be performed the way it was recorded. The four-time Grammy Award-winning album houses primarily quiet musings about lover’s troubles. The voices of Joy Williams and John Paul White have managed to encapture the glorious harmony and terrifying tension that is often the chemistry between lovers, making this subject an ideal theme for Barton Hollow. Below is PPcorn’s track-by-track album review of the Civil Wars’ Barton Hollow.
“20 Years” opens Barton Hollow with lush acoustic guitar, paired with Joy Williams’ dulcet vocals. The instrumentation is very sparse, with only guitar and the occasional orchestral bells, but the song is by no means lacking. Vocals are clearly the focal point of this album.
“I’ve Got This Friend” clearly demonstrates what the pair are able to do vocally. A slightly more upbeat, playful tune, this track starts with White narrating, and on the chorus’s “woahs” Williams joins in, the vocals blending perfectly. The continue on, trading versus, always together on “If the right one came / if the right one came along.”
“C’est la Mort” (“Such is Death”) is a woebegone little number sung between lovers who find themselves in a Romeo and Juliet sort of situation; “Please don’t go without me.”
“To Whom It May Concern” has a dainty air to it, aided by the delicate string arrangement, with tender vocals directed at an unknown future love. “I’ve missed you, but I haven’t met you.”
“Poison and Wine” is a single from this album that tells the tale of emotionally drained lovers. The relationship’s fragility is conveyed in White’s trembling voice, seeping with emotion. “I don’t love you, but I always will” addresses that darker, more tense aspect of relationships.
“My Father’s Father” has a rambling rhythm to it, with White on acoustic guitar again, but also, a slide guitar accompanying the duo’s echoing harmonies. The leaves have changed a time or two / Since the last time the train came through / I got my ticket and I’m going to go / Home.”
“Barton Hollow” as the title track, this song is an absolutely catchy hit, one of the more upbeat tunes among the bunch, making us wish for more along these lines. A classic Appalachia-alternative-folk foot-stomper, the haunting sound of Williams’ and White’s vocals rising and falling recalls Elbow’s “Grounds for Divorce” but the tune is distinctively their own.
“The Violet Hour” has soft hall piano and quietly plucked guitar with cello later on, this pretty instrumental fades with a clock chime hits from the piano.
“Girl with the Red Balloon” a kind of carnival carousel pattern to it, this melancholy tune focuses on a girl who is “So lovely / so lonely / floating away…” and her lover’s mysterious absence.
“Falling” is a breakup song that is counterbalanced yet again by the union of Williams’ and White’s voices, making you undeniably relate: “I can’t help falling / out of love with you.”
“Forget Me Not” a prime example of how Williams and White’s voices have an uncanny ability to bend with each other as they entreat each other to “always be true.”
“Birds of a Feather” brings us back to a happier note. “Who could do without you?” Is that electric guitar we hear? Oh heaven above, let it ring out. Soft flute also adds depth to this one.
Bonus Tracks: “I Want You Back” another Jackson 5 cover, with Joy Williams taking Michael Jackson’s lead while White strums guitar and adds harmonies. A much less uptempo rendition. A hesitant plea, not as urgent as the original.
“Dance Me to the End of Love” a cover of Leonard Cohen’s 1984 has a heavy subject and a memorable melody, threatening to make it a “standard.” Though the majority of the album is comprised of hushed duets of love, the way in which the Civil Wars bring their voices together creates a truly emotive album that will have you feeling the joy and pain right along with them. Read about the Civil Wars unfortunate recent breakup announcement on the Encyclopedia of Music here.