Barton Hollow – The Civil Wars, 2011
I am so happy that after last night’s Grammy Awards, most of America is now aware of the force that is The Civil Wars. The first time I ever paid this duo (John Paul White and Joy Williams) any attention was while watching So You Think You Can Dance last summer, when a group routine was choreographed to their beautiful “Poison & Wine”. Now, I love this show with a passion, and it was a lovely, well-danced routine, but I remember trying to focus on what was happening visually, while being completely wrapped up in what was happening audibly. And actually, looking back I don’t think the choreography does the song justice, but you can decide that for yourself, and watch it here:
“Poison & Wine” became their first widely received track, having also had play during a Grey’s Anatomy episode – I should really start watching that show just for the exposure to emotion-packed songs by new artists. Soon enough however, I was listening to their whole album, Barton Hollow, and most thankfully, my roommate Beth bought it on vinyl when we got to see them live at The Vogue in November. So, here I am, on my day off on the morning after the Grammys, fully expecting to do a Whitney tribute blog, or maybe finish off the Billy Joel one that’s been sitting in my drafts for a week, and all I can think about is The Civil Wars. And apparently I’m not the only one, with Barton Hollow climbing back up to the #5 download on iTunes this morning!
So I slip Side 1 over the post and settle onto my couch, with ears perked up. “20 Years” introduces us to Barton Hollow – a place full of stories – and to what The Civil Wars do best: soft and subtle harmonies over a lullaby-esque picked acoustic guitar. The story is simple yet compelling, speaking of a 20-year-old note on “yellow paper” waiting to be read and responded to. Although this record was made in 2011, I sometimes feel as though Barton Hollow is that old letter slid under my door, and I am unfolding it to discover old secrets and truths of a stranger.
Next is one of the album’s few more perky tracks, “I’ve Got This Friend”, which was on regular rotation on my summer playlists this past July and August. Probably my favorite matchmaking song… not that I can think of any others (without including “Matchmaker” from Fiddler on the Roof). Since seeing The Civil Wars perform live, I can’t help but picture Joy bouncing along to this song like she does in her heels and knee-length dress.
As I’ve listened to “C’est La Mort” and “To Whom It May Concern” today, they keep reminding me of two other songs of similar content: Respectively, Bruno Mars’ “Grenade” and John Mayer’s “Love Song for No One”. (If you are unfamiliar with either, the names will link you to youtube vids.) Of course there are several differences in both cases, but I think what truly sets The Civil Wars songs apart is their earnestness, and ability to sound convincing, whether on the subject of a love worth dying for or a non-existent, but yearned for love.
I would say this quality is suspended into their concert performances. Although Joy and John are not a couple, but married to different people, they are able to hold such beauty and tension in their relationship to one another. Their partnership allows them to be so honest in their music, letting them be each other’s voices for pain and love in that way. They mean the words they sing, just not about one another. Amazing.
Next comes the enchanting “Poison & Wine”, which still causes me to stop nearly any activity in order to digest more fully. The song comes across as a bottle of wine that I want to guzzle, and often once I’ve listened intently with eyes closed, I feel drunk by the end of it. I kind of wish Side 1 of the vinyl version ended there, but instead “My Father’s Father” brings the first half of the record to a close with a sparse and simple song. I feel as though this is the best kind of country music, because all though it is all about telling stories, they never spell it out too much for the listener, leaving plenty of room for us to fill in the blanks with our imagination. How literal or metaphorical is the grandfather’s blood on the tracks? It’s left for us to decide.
I turn the record over and get picked back up with the album’s title track, “Barton Hollow”; the bluesy number that was performed at the Grammy awards. Continuing the trend of subtle stories, Barton Hollow becomes a home that can never be returned to, and is marked by the final line of the chorus: “Can’t no preacher man save my soul”. This is followed by instrumental “The Violet Hour” on piano, guitar and a little bit of cello, that ends with the piano mimicking a bell tolling. “The Violet Hour” reminds me how instrumentally sparse the whole album really is – the instruments are there to support the vocals, and the default attitude is that less is more. Sometimes a violin will highlight melody or add something a little extra, or a cello will give a foundation for the guitar lick, but for the most part, listening to The Civil Wars is all about lyrics, vocal harmony, and whatever may lend itself to these.
As an example, “The Girl with the Red Balloon” has a very light amount of violin in it; other than in the moments that swell with tension and timbre, the song is sung over guitar chords and the odd cymbal roll. This is also what has the next song, “Falling”, always remind me of the music from Marketa Iglova and Glen Hansard from the movie Once. It probably also helps that they have a song with nearly the same title, “Falling Slowly”. Joy and John Paul’s voices once again are so believably full of experience and desire and pain.
Although I am starting to feel bad about how much I am comparing the songs on this album to other artists and work, I have not mentioned the most obvious, which is Alison Krauss and Robert Plant’s collaboration on Raising Sand. There are many comparisons one could draw, but “Forget Me Not” seems like the one song that feels as though it could have been a B Side to “Please Read the Letter”. If someone had played me this song a year ago and told me it would be on my stereo on the regular, I would have laughed and made a hostile comment towards country music in general. Alas and alack, I have given in. If this is Country, I am a fan. Lower case f-fan only.
“Birds of a Feather” closes off the vinyl version of Barton Hollow, and continues the theme of channelling Krauss and Plant… can channelling happen to living beings? Oh well. It’s fun, though minor, and leaves me wanting more. Altogether, I am amazed that such a sad sounding album could feel so alive and well. It is mostly in minor keys and either whispery-quiet, or desperately-loud, but it is honest and beautiful, and will long live on my future iPods.
Although officially that’s the end of the album, the bonus tracks that come with the iTunes download are very worth a mention. The first is a song that nearly knocked me off my seat in concert: a cover of Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back”. Now, I am the opposite of a fan of covering anything by Michael Jackson, but this is phenomenal, as they recreate it to the point of being nearly unrecognizable. Next is a Leonard Cohen cover (of which I am nearly always a fan) of the song “Dance Me to the End of Love”. All this to say, I am a pacifist, but I support keeping The Civil Wars in the top download category by getting their album on iTunes. If you haven’t already. And if you still need convincing, you can pick a free download of one of their shows, “Live at Eddie’s Attic” right here: http://noisetrade.com/thecivilwars
Congrats Joy and John Paul, on your Grammys and many new fans!