The Civil Wars is the moniker for Joy Williams and John Paul White getting together and making some pretty folk music. But having your first proper album go to #1 on iTunes isn't something that happens over night. The two singer-songwriters come from contrasting, but budding solo careers, and created a whole of internet buzz when they released their Live at Eddie's Attic live album a couple years ago. Unlike a lot of music that released as "folk" these days, Barton Hollow is very much a representation of what these two artists do on the stage. In fact, the whole thing hinges on the performance of Williams and White and the way their voices bend and wrap around each other. Fortunately for The Civil Wars, these guys have got an unparalleled kind of guy-girl chemistry that bests anything since The Swell Season. The chemistry usually makes it across quite well, especially in songs like "I've Got This Friend" and the title track, "Barton Hollow".
More than anything else, Barton Hollow and the band itself is very much about the 'civil' fashion in which we wage war against our loved ones. The civility of it all is apparent enough in the music; the harmonies that Williams and White sing are almost agreeable and pretty to a fault. There is no clutter getting in the way, just the pristine clarity of an acoustic guitar and two brilliant singers. However, beneath the surface, there is an undeniable tension in the conflicted lyrics and darker musical shades. The best example of this tension might be in their single "Poison and Wine", where they sing, "I don't love you/but I always will". Williams calls this darker side of the music the depiction of the idea that "beauty can be bittersweet and truth can be hard to swallow".
The darker side of the band is explored further in the title track, an alt-country, "I'm from Alabama" kind of song. It makes you wish there were more of these kind of songs on Barton Hollow, an album made up mostly of quiet musings on guy-girl troubles which, of course, is fitting. When you have two singers this talented singing hushed songs together about the joys and heartache of long-term relationships its hard not to hear the sincerity in their voices. However, the album's snail-paced rut that it gets stuck in toward the end begins to push the duo's winning formula to its breaking point. Although its refreshing to hear music that actually could be performed just as its recorded, I would have loved to hear some a couple more upbeat songs and some arrangements that featured something other than White's quiet guitar-picking in the front of the mix.
From what I've seen and heard, however, all that fades into the background when The Civil Wars get on the stage. These are all-star performers who function together quite like these long-term relationships they sing about do. Bending around each other in balance and space, sometimes taking turns and sometimes existing in glorious harmony, The Civil Wars is a beautiful picture of relationship. Even the way they talk about how they first started writing songs together supports the picture as John Paul White refers to hearing their voices together as a sort of love at "first sight" kind of thing. They seem to think that the "sum of their parts is different than any other music we could make or have made up to this point" and that The Civil Wars is "200 percent what we could be as a solo artist". Barton Hollow has convinced me of the same and has the whole world paying attention to the very promising future for this duo.
The Civil Wars - 20 Years
The Civil Wars - Barlow Hollow