Barton Hollow by the Civil Wars (Sensibility Music, 2011. 40 minutes)
An indie-folk duo composed of Joy Williams and John Paul White, the Nashville-based band, the Civil Wars, formed after the two met at a songwriters camp. Having found success previously as solo artists, Williams and White discovered an instant connection allowing them to release a live recording of their second gig as a free download titled, Live at Eddie’s Attic. Partnering with producer Charlie Peacock, the band started recording its first studio EP, Poison and Wine. The band first encountered national recognition when the song, “Poison and Wine,” from the debut EP played in its entirety over a climactic montage on Grey’s Anatomy. Barton Hollow is the band’s first release on Sensibility Music and is highly acclaimed being both named Paste Magazine’s “Best of What’s Next” and the top album on Taylor Swift’s 2011 playlist.
The Top Prospect
Every summer, baseball fans hype the next hot prospect. Murmurings rise from the minor leagues of a 95-mile-an-hour fastball and a knee-buckling, 12-to-6 curveball. These prospects have major-league talent but remain in the minor leagues due to inconsistency. Quick fastballs and biting curves are worthless without accuracy – the crucial trait most difficult to acquire. The difference between Felix Hernandez, a Cy Young award-winning ace and a farm league pitcher is inches of accuracy. Barton Hollow, the first full-length release from the Civil Wars exhibits the prodigious talent required to throw blazing fastballs and sharp curveballs, yet lacks the consistency that would make the record an ace.
Barton Hollow contains stripped-down instrumentation with harmony heavy, country vocals. Each song exemplifies the notion of a civil war between man and woman with Joy Williams and John Paul White trading lines and singing about relational heartbreak.
Hit single, “Poison & Wine,” provides evidence of this central theme when the duo sings,
“I don’t love you but I always will.”
Living in this contradiction, the record sounds sweet but the lyrics betray dark undertones, “Birds of a Feather,” the closing song on the album expands on these themes:
“She’s the sea I’m sinking in / He’s the ink under my skin / Sometimes I can’t tell where I end / Where I leave off and he begins”
The LP includes two brilliant songs, “Poison & Wine” and “Barton Hollow.” Illustrating the fastball and curveball, these songs take my breath away with vocal gymnastics, beautiful melodies, and keen lyrics. If Barton Hollow contained 12 songs of similar quality, the record would honestly be one of the best I have ever heard. I really mean it. Seriously, don’t question me – these two songs are that good.
But, the rest of the album leaves my ears wanting more. While the songs in and of themselves are enjoyable, the minimal instrumentation and difficult melodies do not translate in the headphones as well as they do in person – I truly recommend seeing this band live; John Paul White and Joy Williams have the best live vocals I have ever heard, I mean, just listen/watch this video.
Just as a top prospect in baseball carries immense talent on his shoulders but needs to work on day-to-day consistency, Barton Hollow displays the very best of what the Civil Wars could become while simultaneously leaving me slightly disappointed. With a country twang, the Civil Wars seem to be on the cusp of greatness. If they could produce a consistent record and perhaps add some instrumentation to give each song some depth, look out for the next great country band. Until then, spin Barton Hollow because it is worth its weight with “Poison & Wine” and “Barton Hollow.”