The Civil Wars
February 2011; Sensibility Music LLC
By Emily J Ramey
The Civil Wars have sprouted from the ground like a slender vine, winding slowly at first and then shooting into the sunny mainstream through a series of fortunate accidents. Young duo though they may be, Joy Williams and John Paul White make a remarkable pair. Their dynamics are poised and expressive, and their voices meld exquisitely, as one might have thought only siblings’ might.
The duo’s customary guitar and violin instrumentation is occasionally accompanied by ethereal piano tones that act as lingering sprigs of fresh greenery among the folksy brambles that preoccupy the rest of the album. On the whole, Barton Hollow is a sinuous tribute to centuries past and melodies forgotten, saturated with captivating turns of phrase.
Opener “20 Years” billows and lopes, beginning the album with an almost whimsical guitar lick. “C’est la Mort” is a delicate, pleading tune, the American folk cousin to the tentative, graceful chords of European duo The Swell Season (of Once fame). The Civil Wars’ breakout hit “Poison and Wine” exudes desperation and heartache, wading through the melancholy with one recurring phrase: “Oh, I don’t love you, but I always will.”
“My Father’s Father” trots lightly, beads of sadness clinging to the tune like dew, manifested in an echoing slide guitar. Then, the title track roars in, blazing and flaring like an old-world forest fire; harmonies glow hotly as blistering strings flicker alongside their voices. The album’s lone instrumental, “The Violet Hour,” directly follows “Barton Hollow,” acting as water splashed across the flames, elegant and haunting.
“Girl with the Red Balloon” is a refreshingly minor track, an elegiac tale of love lost and a girl who is “always and never alone.” “Forget Me Not” washes over the listener like a summer rain – warm, gentle, cleansing; the tune is reminiscent of traditional country duets, steady and broad, made modern by a twinkling mandolin.
The Civil Wars can be proud of their extraordinarily rich debut. Barton Hollow musters the beginnings of a long, lovely road, and speaking personally, I’ll “walk miles and miles in my bare feet” if I have to.