Saturday, February 19, 2011

Voices That Pine: The Civil Wars' Barton Hollow

The Civil Wars is a new duo featuring singer/guitarist John Paul White and singer/keyboardist, Joy Williams. He is from Alabama and she is from California and they debuted 2 years ago at a club called Eddie’s Attic in Atlanta, Georgia. Barton Hollow is their first full-length studio album and it’s a very impressive debut.

I was immediately charged by their sound, which is a delicate balance of Nashville country and Mississippi swamp. The song “Barton Hollow” talks about a “dead man walking” with no hope of forgiveness or redemption: “Won’t do me no good washing in the river/Can’t no preacher man save my soul.” The last line is not in the form of a question with its double-negative despondency. The vocal rather draws you in with great empathy; it’s a tribute to White and Williams’ sensitivity as singers. This is particularly true, as well, for the opening track, “20 Years,” where the character in the song asks for deliverance, even if it takes 20 years. It’s a thoughtful number and one that first appeared on their debut album Live at Eddie’s Attic in 2009.

Pop music has always had male-female duos such as Ian & Sylvia and the more recent Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova, aka The Swell Season. The dynamic usually works when the sexual chemistry of the couple is heard in the music. For Williams and White, who are married, but not to each other, that chemistry is remarkably strong. On the song “Poison and Wine,” first heard on their EP in 2009, we feel every yearning note as Williams and White trade alternate lines in the verses. It’s a song about a couple connected at the hip (for better or worse) as they sing in unison, “Oh, I don’t love you/ But I always will.” I’ve never heard a song about the rawness of love quite like this one. The performance is at once intimate and painful.

Joy Williams and John Paul White
One of the sweetest songs on the album is the 3-quarter time, “Forget Me Not.” It has a charm that sounds like the Carter Family of Virginia. The entire track is performed in harmony and it soars above the rest for many reasons, not the least of which is the lines “Let’s write a song for us and sing until we’re old and gray.” Like all of the performances on the record, these two just love to sing -- and they love to sing to each other. You can hear it and you can see it on their marvelous YouTube videos at Eddie’s Attic.

But if these 12 tracks don’t grab you right away, the bonus tracks will. The duo does a completely re-imagined version of The Jackson 5’s“I Want You Back” and a superb version of Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

Barton Hollow is only available through iTunes or the band’s website, Without question, it is one of the best Independent releases of the year.

-- John Corcelli is a musician, actor, writer and theatre director.

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