Today I’ll write about yet another duo performing remarkable music, tracing its roots to the vast heritage of traditional American country and folk songs. The Civil Wars released their first record, titled Barton Hollow, early last year, and it’s become one of the most noteworthy albums of 2011, with its honest, intimate vibe and outstanding musical craftsmanship. It’s really quite impressive for a debut record, and I’m already looking forward for some new material.
The flagship track of the album is “Barton Hollow”, a bluesy, vigorous song which refuses to leave once you listen to it, but also slightly misrepresents the album as a whole. You see, it’s probably the most animated, rhythmic song in the collection, as the general mood of the album is set by the great number of ballads and slow, meditative folk songs it contains. The Civil Wars are perfectly aware of their main strength, which lies in the fantastic way their voices complement each-other and harmonize. It’s not always you come across such a strong duet, with such control of harmony and matching voice timbres. The songs are crafted in such a way as to keep the instrumentation minimal, almost subdued, in order to showcase this wonderful sonic dance the singers engage in, be it via harmony or dialogue, or both, alternatively.
Barton Hollow is an album capable of inciting great pulsations of nostalgia – bittersweet and comfortable memories and moods which wash over you with ease and warmth, lulling you deep into a sense of security and occasional longing. It seems to me country music often has this quality to it, this echo of home, as if the singer is always far away and far removed from the very things and people who make most sense. This quiet, almost religious feeling of belonging to “somewhere other than here” permeates The Civil Wars’ music to the bone, even though the country influence is very well integrated into a less restrictive genre. The occasional pedal steel guitar, the subdued fiddle showing up once in a while, the chord structure and banjo-style finger picking style which they employ on some songs, all of these seem to work towards a fuller, more complex genre than country, more open and appealing to a wider audience. I, for one, am not a big fan of the more traditional, conservative country music, save for a few exceptions, and yet The Civil Wars manage to keep me interested and comfortable throughout their record. And, again, I believe it’s because of their voices – they’re ever so hard to resist, with the enthralling, wonderful way in which they intertwine.
I’ve always had trouble dancing, not necessarily because I’ve got two left feet, but rather because I can’t picture dancing outside the context of a deep, trusting relationship. I can’t see how two people could hold each-other like that and move in such a way without caring for each-other. I could never dance with someone I don’t care about. I guess that’s the feeling this album conveys to me – the two singers (Joy Williams and John Paul White) easily convince me that they’re together in this, they know each-other, so their songs are totally truthful, or at least completely believable. They sing with such uncomplicated passion that the lyrics never seem hollow, never give you that annoying “cookie-cutter love song” vibe which so many duets succumb to. The songs might seem a bit flat, but that’s only because they know how to escalate in a very subtle way, again, relying on their voices, nude and vibrant. The sweet, gentle shift from a dialogue to a harmony is always there to allow the song to grow, it’s always perfectly dosed and nurtured and sometimes it reaches truly spectacular levels of intensity.
The Civil Wars are the only band I know of which makes this kind of music convincing, devoid of artifice and useless, transparent metaphor. It’s this honesty which drew my attention in the first place, and it’s the slowly revealed skill and patience with which it’s become apparent that they honed their songs to this refined state which kept me enthralled. This is the kind of album which stands a very good chance of showing up in teenage angst movies, sadly, since, to paraphrase Quentin Tarantino, a well chosen song will always try to elevate a bland movie scene, sometimes managing to turn it into something memorable, other times, however, getting dragged down with it. There’s so much more to this music than would fit into your standard romantic comedy cloned script. Look for it, patiently, it’s there to be discovered!