By The Civil Wars
I tuned in to a recent "Later..." mainly to see Little Roy perform from the beautiful "Battle for Seattle" (another review, another time) and was only too happy for another act on the bill to catch my ear. The Civil Wars performed three songs - one, a deft and gentle cover of "Billie Jean" - and each performance was enough to leave me wanting more. And so I got hold of the album...
Americana, indie-folk, leftfield-alt-country-spangle (so I made the last one up - but y'all can quit complainin')... call it what you like - there's no shortage these days of music re-crafting and re-inventing popular song by proudly displaying its roots in, well, roots. I've got my tickets for Fleet Foxes and Bon Iver, jumped at the chance to catch Band of Horses, Villagers and Megafaun earlier in the year and I'm giddy about stocking-up on Bella Union goodies at Jumbo this Saturday. So for me, having a plethora of artists playing music I can play to my Dad and know he'll like, it's a great time to be finding new albums to add to the already bowed shelves.
The pace of Barton Hollow is set out in the first notes of opener "20 Years". Within a few bars I was greeted by the warmth of Joy Williams and John Paul White's intertwining vocals and before I knew it I was following the trail from an old map, hitching a freight-train ride and looking out across endless fields, sun beating down on me - piece of straw in mouth. The journey had begun and I was happy to find myself lifted out of a cold Farsley morning, being whisked away to somewhere between the Deep South and the Brudenell Social Club.
The call and response verse, then unison chorus of "I've Got This Friend" has such simple structure and instrumentation that it's hard not to fall for the childlike charm of the vocals. There's a more obvious pop sensibility to some songs that follow, and despite the attention its received "Poison & Wine" doesn't offer me the same as other tracks. I tried to ignore the fact I knew it had been used in an emotional climatic scene of "Grey's Anatomy" but as I listened to it - and then tried with another listen or two - I got the feeling somebody's heart was being broken somewhere for the sake of a camera and an audience. I know the song wasn't written for the programme and maybe I'm being cruel but "Poison & Wine" just didn't press a button for me like the rest of the album. It could easily be a female solo artist track from Billboard America which for me cast it differently from other songs.
"Barton Hallow" is one of the highlights and moves along with a fiercer lick than other tracks. The redemptive theme is familiar enough territory but enjoying the vibe so far, it adds a darker side to the music at just the right point. I was reminded of a superb gig by Agnostic Mountain Gospel Choir (thank you Brudenell!) whilst at the same time was left needing to hear PJ Harvey/John Parish's "A Woman a Man Walked By" as soon as I was done - both completely acceptable for a song to evoke or inspire. "Forget Me Not" shows the same level of care and attention to tradition and is a beautiful little song which adds more colour and depth to the stripped down palette elsewhere on the album.
One thing stands out on the album on the whole, and that is how perfectly each song follows the previous and precedes the next. Even the instrumental "The Violet Hour" is in just the right place - bridging two halves of the album. It sounds obvious - that any album should flow - but in the download by track age, there's not always the focus on this an album deserves. Throughout Barton Hollow, it's definitely there which lets the stories reach through to you on the first listen. Don't get me wrong, I like a challenge and can think of albums I've had to listen to several times before I was "into them" but sometimes there's nothing better than a pair of slippers that feel like you've owned them for ever, as soon as you put them on.
If you like what you hear on this album - check their website for a free live album recorded in 2009 from their second ever gig. It's a great freebie and captures the simplicity and beauty of their music and makes for a fitting companion to Barton Hollow. If this is your bag then dip your own toe. Trust me, the water's lovely.