The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow (Columbia)

With two Grammys already in their hot little hands, Nashville duo The Civil Wars are causing quite a fuss. Their debut album was released independently a year ago in the States but is only now getting a NZ release via Sony. The wait was worth it. If you are a fan of Gillian Welsh and David Rawlings or The Swell Season, chances are you’ll fall in love with The Civil Wars.

The Civil Wars consists of John Paul White and Joy Williams. The very photogenic duo met at a songwriting workshop in Nashville in 2009. He had been writing songs for EMI Nashville, she had been a Christian rock singer. Together they have written and recorded one of the most acclaimed debut albums of the past year.

The 12 songs that comprise Barton Hollow were all written by the duo. The opening song, 20 Years, immediately draws the listener in with the line, “there’s a note underneath your front door”, sung in exquisite close harmony by White and Williams.

Produced by Charlie Peacock, the album is acoustically-based…with no drum kit. Instead the two voices are backed by mandolin, fiddle, double bass, piano, guitar and the occasional trumpet and organ.

To be sure, the singing and instrumentation are beautiful, but what about the songs? I’m happy to report, that for the most part they are outstanding. The duo are at their best when setting up scenarios and characters like 20 Years and Girl With The Red Balloon. Often the songs are romantic and nostalgic, but they rarely get too soppy. I’ve Got This Friend, the second tune, gets kind of close. But a track like Poison & Wine shows them off best…a sparse accompaniment and a simmering vocal performance.

They even rock out…kind of…on the title track, an intense rocker that finds White playing bass and several guitars. It reminded me of the best of Australia’s Kasey Chambers and Shane Nicholson.

The album comes with six bonus tracks that definitely should be heard. First is a live rendition of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean. It’s a slow, slinky version with just the two voices and an acoustic guitar. Next is an even bigger surprise, The Jackson Five’s I Want You Back, sung as a folk ballad…imagine Simon & Garfunkel performing it. This version shows just what a great song it is.

More predictable, but just as enjoyable, is the duo’s version of Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me To The End Of Love. There’s some lovely, uncredited steel guitar playing going on there. The bonus tracks are rounded out by a version of You Are My Sunshine and a couple of their own tunes…an acoustic version of Goodbye Girl and a demo of Marionette.

In Birds Of A Feather, the final song of the regular album, John Paul White and Joy Williams sing, “Oh, aren’t we a pretty pair?”. They certainly are. Expect big things from these two.

Marty Duda

Click here to listen to Poison & Wine from Barton Hollow