The Civil Wars - Barton Hollow
Him: preacher man suit, boho grizzle, a tone unexpectedly clear. Her: black dress (little), voice of similar size but sweeter than wine. They are Joy Williams and John Paul White, and encountering their whispered confessionals is like uncovering a cracked and faded journal in a dusty attic. There are ghosts within these songs; slivers of mystery, backwoods tales that drip with desire and burn with pain and loss. The Civil Wars will come to mean an awful lot to many people but they are more of a challenge than your obvious, cheap thrill. Take care to listen hard. With the volume low and the melodics shaded with the utmost subtlety, be also prepared to handle with care.
Their background is telling. Both are from Nashville – that much is almost obvious. White has a single solo album to his name, released a year before he met Williams. But she is no ingénue: look and you’ll find three albums of Christian music before she hooked up with her partner and though there’s no hard evidence of that lingering here, there is a deeply spiritual quality to this stripped down, blackened gospel. At its most convincing, Barton Hollow comes down from the mountain and ascends to the heavens. It wields little more than a pair of voices, a layer of un-showy but deliberate acoustic guitar and the subtlest of colouring (minimal percussion, strings, piano). The surface is largely still as their voices knot in harmony or they trade off in classic duet but beneath, there’s a storm brewing.
Barton Hollow is, largely, an exemplary remodelling of the alt.country template but it doesn’t quite manage a level of unbridled, breathless excellence throughout. A handful of songs pale beside its high spots. For the latter see the opening ’20 Years’, a tale of almost unbearable, unclear confession (“There's a note underneath your front door that I wrote twenty years ago / Yellow paper and a faded picture, and a secret in an envelope”) or ‘Falling’, the anguish of love long gone (“Please, please tell me you know, I've got to let you go / I can't help falling out of love with you”.) The title track is spiked bluegrass, a barbed mid-set wake up call and the spirit of George Jones sits up alive and well on the beautiful ‘Forget Me Not’. If the likes of ‘C’est La Mort’ (a tad melodramatic) and the whimsy of ‘I’ve Got This Friend’ don’t quite grasp your heart like much of this enthralling collection do, no matter. As their audience expands at a rate of knots (they return to the UK for a theatre tour in October), expect similar return on their peerless art. Guaranteed: this debut won’t be their best work. Amen to that.