1000 Albums Project

ALBUM 335

Barton Hollow, by The Civil Wars
Suggested by Phillip Staines

We live in turbulent times.

At the time of writing, it’s the twelfth of January 2021. Some six days ago, armed insurgents stormed America’s Captiol Building, where US lawmakers had convened to finalise the upcoming transfer of power from President Donald Trump to President-Elect Joe Biden. The ensuing act of terror claimed five lives before the uprising was quashed, and the horrific images were beamed around the world for all to see.

I’ll not dwell on the specific politics, because frankly there’s only one side to that argument. Taking a broader view, however, we can see that no matter how you view the world, the American two-party system is incredibly divisive. Party lines are divided by the slimmest of margins, and such a fractured society seems perennially on the edge of a very literal civil war.

Ironically, The Civil Wars themselves are also no stranger to such divisions. A multi Grammy award winning musical duo, they formed in 2008 and split six years later in what appeared to be good spirits but turned out to be more acrimonious than first imagined. Through their musical tenure, they spawned a meagre two albums, with Barton Hollow being their debut.

From the outset, it’s clear to all that the meeting of creative minds that formed the band, and the bond, between Joy Williams and John Paul White is strong and successful. The album houses some beautifully heart-wrenching Americana tunes, sultry and subtle, packed with emotion and a genteel rawness of intent. Through twelve tracks proper, The Civil Wars ply their trade in roots ballads on acoustic guitar, with incredible, indelible vocals that are nuanced and warm and entirely unforgettable.

From this excellent base, it’s rather surprising that the true standouts here are the songs that push out a little more than expected, such as the heartbreaking chronicle of a fading relationship that forms Poison and Wine. Thematically, that ground is far from barren, as the softly spoken Falling can attest. But my favourite song is the title track itself, the glorious Barton Hollow, with it’s outlaw chic and black velvet slow Southern style. Absolutely wonderful.

On an album with almost zero missteps, the bonus cover of Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean seems a touch out of place, but it’s as intense and personal as the rest so I can see why it made the cut. “Intense and personal” is a fine descriptor for this album as a whole, and indeed for the band themselves, which goes some way to explain why they burned out after two albums and are not on speaking terms. Such a passionate creative fire can only burn so long, and when you throw in a husband who’s managing the band, you can appreciate why the duo, and the marriage, suffered as a result.

Barton Hollow gets an easy 8/10. It’s authentic and emotional, and well worth an hour of your time, no matter what side of the house you may sit.

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