The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow (Columbia/Sony) CD REVIEW

IT’S EASY TO see the appeal of this Nashville-based duo, who released this debut album independently last year, only to find instant acclaim, the winning of two Grammys (Best Country Duo/Group Performance and Best Folk Album) catapulting them past their comfy indie ghetto. Now, the album is re-released on Sony, and we down in the Antipodean badlands get to hear its 12 tracks, as well as six “bonus” cuts.
It’s the simplicity that appeals: most tracks consist of dual voices, with deft use of acoustic guitar, mandolin, and occasionally piano and string arrangements.
The songs are undemonstrative, melodic, intelligently worded, and well crafted, with stylistic elements from country (of course), folk minstrelsy, the singer-songwriter tradition, and the odd touch of Spanish influence in the guitar rhythms.
But what does it all at up to? Had Joy Williams and John Paul White succumbed to a conventional backdrop for their songs and singing, there would have been little to differentiate this from hundreds of other wannabes in the country/folk music market. The singing, while okay, isn’t special. The songs, while well crafted, have the whiff of ‘writing to a perceived audience’ about them that the true singer-songwriter giants would never have a bar of. Well, the two did meet at a “writing camp” where the intention was to write radio-friendly singles.
But as I noted already, the beauty of the very spare backings really differentiate the project. The guitar is mostly slowly picked, but these figures embed themselves in your memory and complement the melodic lines. There’s nothing raw or lo-fi about the instrumental backdrop (and thank Jehovah/Satan for that), but there’s a startling beauty to the controlled poise of the playing. Even the sound of the piano has an ambient waft to it that imbues Barton Hollow with something it possibly wouldn’t have had, had it been the product of a major label.
I expect it to get old really quickly, as urban sophisticates and bedsit bores alike tune in to its charms. In truth, it is a bit winsome and safe and mellow to really get your teeth into, but it’s definitely worth a few spins.
The generous helping of ‘bonus’ cuts doesn’t improve the album in any substantive way. It’s entertaining one time to hear them render Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’ country-folk style, but their tepid version of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Dance Me To The End Of Love’ proves they’re still minnows in the wake of such legends.
The sound isn’t spectacularly rich or resonant, but it suits the spare performances and the sonic drift is captured nicely. GARY STEEL
Music = 3.5
Sound = 3.5

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