By David McMichael
Walk to class, or play in any park or other place with grass and people when spring and summer are conducting their politest “you,” “no you,” “no you, I insist” routine, and you will – of course – see some young romantic, sitting and playing his guitar over his knobby knee. This is obnoxious, but it’s also primal. Instinctual. Because we don’t have caves or wooly mammoth battles to paint on our walls, we have to find some other way of expressing our identity and our worth.
Singers like Joy Williams and John Paul White (a visual cross between Johnny Depp and Jack White – no relation, sadly), the two main pieces of indie act The Civil Wars, instill a sense of creativity and motivation with their first full-length studio album, Barton Hollow.
They have a lovely instrumental/vocal style that isn’t overwhelming technically – someone playing consistently for a year or two would be able to cover, and cover well, all of these songs. This doesn’t, of course, account for the incredible knack for natural and flowing songwriting that these two performers display, but when someone with musical aspirations hears something that is both simple and successful, it’s encouraging – a good word to describe both the emotional/lyrical content of this album, as well as its more subtle and indirect effects on its listeners.
I think one of the reasons this album has been so successful is its overwhelming soundtracking potential. Everything plays poignantly, like it’s topping off a series of scenes in some gently standard indie fare (think Zach Braff/Natalie Portman/life-changing Shins).
“I’ve Got This Friend” comes with shaking, hand-drawn block letters flashing over quick, playful shots of sunrise cities and lovers dancing on rooftops with prancy feet. “C’est la Mort,” reminiscent of deVotchka’s Little Miss Sunshine hit, is the song over the riding-in-the-car montage, windows down and sun flares shining through streaming hair and expensive sunglasses. “Falling” is the breakup and returning to respective cities, where both subjects will sit on their respective beds and eventually see a broken guitar string or kinetic typography art piece that will drive them back to a fervent embrace.
Listeners can grab this relatability and overlay it atop their own experiences. What car ride isn’t better with a soundtrack? What midnight walk or coffeeshop coffee isn’t made more complete by the addition of tonal contributions? For better or worse, our experiences must be more than real, and The Civil Wars realize that.
The lyrics and instrumentals are interesting and well crafted while not taking on any sort of experimental quality that would challenge the complete sense of oneness you can feel with these songs. Their calling card, “Poison and Wine,” for example, mourns “I don’t love you but I always will.” Almost anyone who hears this song will know a boy or girl who can almost flawlessly fit in between these lyrics.
This album falls skillfully and pleasantly into the trend of hi-fi/lo-fi, sort-of-indie artists we’ve seen in the past few years, like Iron and Wine, Regina Spektor and Ingrid Michaelson. Simple instrumentals, often with sparse percussion, high focus on vocals and low focus on production. You don’t have the fuzz or the bird sounds you get with someone like Tallest Man on Earth, but you also don’t have the huge, drums-choral-brassy-legionofguitars sounds of big bands like – still indie-ish – Mumford and Sons or, you know, Coldplay.
Essentially, the album is a series of anthems. The opening track, “20 Years,” is an anthem celebrating cultivated musical simplicity – as most of the album does – and the quick-but-slow slipping of time. “In the meantime I’ll be waiting for twenty years or more,” sings White. The hyperbolizing here keeps it lyrically rooted in common ground.
“Barton Hollow,” the title track, is a significant stylistic departure from the rest of the album. Percussion throughout and thick strumming brings it almost into the realm of yowly trucker anthems. Think that H-E-B song from the Super Bowl, mixed with something that’s not a deathly, corpulent, oozing, ruinous plague.
On the whole, Williams and White blend splendidly for a solid, anthemic album, and their harmonies and sentiments run deep.