Album Review

Civil Wars "Barton Hollow"

Brian Ahnmark
For “emerging” artists, Joy Williams and John Paul White have certainly played their cards with the savvy of wily veterans. The Nashville-based duo, under the moniker The Civil Wars, recorded their second-ever performance for a live release, perhaps foreseeing their own rapid ascension. The piano-guitar duet “Poison & Wine” was hand-picked for an episode of Grey's Anatomy. Taylor Swift proclaimed her No. 1 fanhood (a glimmer of hope in today's cringe-inducing country music scene) and before Williams and White even had time to record a proper full-length, The Civil Wars were practically a household name.

Thankfully, debut album Barton Hollow stares down the hype with a confident batch of 12 songs pulsating with emotion, like a collection of secret love letters hidden away in an attic. It's a hushed but potent affair, with an overall vibe of a candlelit recording session around a single microphone.

Sparse arrangements by Williams and White are bolstered oh-so-subtly by mandolin, fiddle, lap steel and piano – adding legitimate texture and flavor, instead of the calculated inclusion of such instruments in modern country-pop crossovers. But unquestionably, the voices carry and lift this body of work. It's absurd to think that the duo has only been working together since 2008; this kind of vocal chemistry typically only spawns from the womb between siblings. White plays the straight voice, allowing Williams to pour her pure mountain brook harmonies all over, twinkling with mischief and a wistful sadness.

“I've Got This Friend” balances lonely with hopeful, its romantic narrative describing a perfect couple whose paths have not yet crossed – a “boy-before-he-meets-the-girl” tune. “Forget Me Not” is an aching plea, a throwback to the earnest, optimistic sweetness of early country-western love songs.

But it isn't all muted. The footstomping, Resonator-led title track sees the two truly cut loose. White proclaims, “I'm a dead man walking here” as Williams unleashes a bewitching spell atop it all. The lyrical imagery of baptism and the Devil's pursuit would've made Mr. Cash proud.

Barton Hollow is what country music should sound like – if country music wasn't an embarrassing cesspool of schlock. Kudos to The Civil Wars for keeping their hands clean and rising above.