Listening to the alt-country duo The Civil Wars’ debut album put me through the emotional wringer. Joy Williams and John Paul White write and perform heart-wrenching duets full of breathy vocals accompanied by sparse acoustic instruments. With voices like theirs that harmonize so beautifully, that’s all they really need.
The subject matter of the songs- loss, saying goodbye, falling out of love- suggest that White and Williams are a couple in a crumbling relationship. They’re strictly musical partners, though. White and Williams met at a writing camp with 20 other writers present. The moment they met and heard each other sing, they knew they could collaborate on something special.
Barton Hollow is certainly something special. The title track, “Barton Hollow” is the most upbeat of the record, and it struck the fear of God in my heart. Foreboding lyrics and chilling ‘oooohhhss’ mesh with guitars and fiddles in what sounds like a western movie soundtrack. It brought imagery to my mind of riding horses at breakneck speed in the dead of night, running from the devil. I love this song.
“Poison & Wine,” apparently played on an episode of Grey’s Anatomy (I didn’t even know this show was still on) is more representative of the rest of the record. It’s sad and haunting, beautiful and poignant.
“Birds of a Feather” is a beautifully written song about being in a relationship, with all its quirks and delights. “She’s the sea I’m sinking in/He’s the ink under my skin…But who could do without you?” Williams and White croon to and with each other, capturing the ups and downs of love perfectly.
“My Father’s Father” also shines, with its lyrics speaking of loneliness and being homesick.
I like this record a lot, but it’s necessary to say that it definitely is not for everyone. Some may find it sad, even bordering on depressing. But I like music that makes me feel something, whether it’s ecstatic or glum. I also like the country vibe of their sound. It’s something different for me amongst my indie pop and electronica. Barton Hollow is beautiful and it can stay.
The Civil Wars will tour to promote the release of Barton Hollow, with appearances scheduled for SXSW and the Sundance Film Festival. It looks like their tour is sticking mostly to the East coast, the Midwest and the Southwest. Us West coast folks will have to hope they head here soon. Barton Hollow is available on iTunes. For a free download of “Barton Hollow” (the song), visit The Civil Wars on their MySpace page or www.thecivilwars.com. Or just see it here:
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