Last night as I sat with friends on my porch overlooking Elk River, I put The Civil Wars' new album Barton Hollow (Sensibility) on the stereo, and immediately, my friends were enthralled, exclaiming over each cut and delighting in the exquisite blend of voice and style. Such has been the unversal response to this incredble debut album by the amazing duo, Joy Williams and John Paul White, who met only two years ago in Nashville, TN, in a song writing workshop.
Reg's Coffee House host, Scott Register, says of Barton Hollow: "In my 13 years on the radio, few of the artists I've championed had as immediate a reaction as The Civil Wars. When I first spun `Poison & Wine' listeners couldn't get enough of it and wanted to own it immediately. This band has the `it' factor that you look for. Don't miss out."
Paste magazine writes that the name Civil Wars might imply radical disagreement but that the "longing, melodic chamber-pop and folk from the duo of John Paul White and Joy Williams puts the emphasis on 'civil'—'courteous or obliging; polite.' " Perhaps the inspiration for the name comes from the fact that Joy Williams hails from Santa Cruz, CA, while John Paul White claims Florence, AL, as his home town. What passes between the two of them musically is anything but war.
Although the duo is not a "couple" (John Paul White is married and has two children), the dynamics between the two is mesmerizing, and the marriage of their voices is a match made in heaven. One critic wrote, "The Civil Wars' chemistry is so provocative, it's almost obscene. Their reputation has preceded this album thanks to their electrifying and magnetic live shows. The lyrics [on the album] are evocative and dripping with pain." In the words of Jim Farber of the New York Daily News, "they curate their notes, stitching together a sound that's sharp, arch, and almost achingly fine."
I had the pleasure on May 25 of this year to see Williams and White perform live at the historic Shoals Theatre in Florence, AL. Although you may not be able to see them visually as they sing on the album, you can almost see them in your mind. Listening to Barton Hollow is like taking a magical mystery tour.
Barton Hollow is clean and spare. The duo usually performs "unplugged," primarily with John Paul's acoustic guitar, and without any back up. As this is a studio album, there is back up but it is so subtle as to be scarcely noticeable. When I first heard The Civil Wars via their web site, I knew I had to have the album. The songs are melancholy without being sad, both plaintive and haunting, and transition, according to Nathan Spicer, from "tempered intropectives" to "fiery declarations."
Williams' and White's voices blend like a rich zabaglione, deep, dark and delicious, making you want to dig into the music with a spoon and call for more. Joy Williams has a voice reminiscent of Joni Mitchell and Joan Baez, yet with the power of Janis Joplin. She never ceases to amaze listeners with the virtuosity of her compelling voice, her vocal variety pairing perfectly with John Paul's lush smoothness.
Every song on the album is artfully crafted and precisely delivered, from the rocking title song, the ballad "Barton Hollow" which ends with "Can't no preacher man save my soul" to the sensually delicious "Falling" and "Girl With the Red Balloon." Each of the twelve songs is an impeccably polished jewel.
The Civil Wars recently performed at the SXSW festival in Austin, TX, and American Songwriter declared their performance to be “…an organic, atmospheric set of songs that butterfly net the range of desire, decay of same and devastation... everything American Songwriter stands for.”
----by Penne J. Laubenthal