Review: The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow (Sensibility, 2011)
From the first moment you hear the intertwining voices of Joy Williams and John Paul White, you might think of The Swell Season, She and Him and other male-female duos. But Civil Wars is less a duet than two voices pulled inextricably together as one. Their harmonies are guided by the sort of familial telepathy that usually only blesses siblings like the Stanleys, Louvins, Everlys or Avetts. Listening deeper into the album, the duo suggests Richard & Mimi Fariña (or Holly Golightly and Lawyer Dave) on the album’s bluesy title track. The drawn-out wordings can feel conspicuous at times, but the alchemy of their voices is never less than mesmerizing. The intimacy of the duo’s vocal tone stands in contrast to the emotional volume of their singing; they use mostly acoustic instrumentation, but conjure a power that feels electric.
White is a little bit country and folk, Williams a little bit pop, and they write songs that are both and neither – rootsy but sweet. They evoke the delicate outlines of romances that could possibly be, relationships that retain the intensity of adolescence, and the hymn-like drama of a troubled marriage in “Poison and Wine.” There are small town comings and goings, hopelessness and hoped-for redemption, and the pair ignites (unfounded) rumors of couplehood with their old-timey Western ballad, “Forget Me Not.” The digital album download includes two bonus covers, a radically reworked vocal arrangement of the Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back,” and an emphatic take on Leonard Cohen’s “Dance Me to the End of Love” that adds a gypsy-jazz tone. Williams and White push and pull one another with their voices, but the battle is civil and the results enchanting.