The Civil Wars' "Barton Holow" (Album Review 7/52)

When I was soliciting suggestions for interesting and different music to review a couple weeks ago, a friend recommended The Civil Wars (thanks Kirk - @dkirkmcdonald). Barton HollowI guess that I've seen them mentioned on some of my regular music blogs a couple times, but hadn't really given them a second thought. Also, I've never gotten into Grey's Anatomy, where the song Poison & Wine was featured (more on that later).

Anyway, I decided to give it a non-casual listen - and I'm glad I did, not only because I really like his album, but also because my wife actually likes it too (which isn't the case with everything I play for the whole family). So, thanks for that, Civil Wars.

The Civil Wars are a duo based in Nashville consisting of John Paul White (various guitars and vocals) and Joy William (various keys and vocals). Here's their website.

One other bit of business before I move on to the music: the first time I listened to it, I was already formulating comparisons in my head to The Swell Season. The comparison is obvious on the most elemental level - a man and woman playing acoustic songs about relationships. But the more I listened, the bigger the differences become. The Civil Wars draw heavily from a country/bluegrass/Southern vibe that differentiates them from the Swell Season. In fact, the more I listen, the less apt the comparison seems... In a good way.. For both groups... Comparisons may help us to simplify and compartmentalize what we hear, but I caution myself, and you, not to let simplification limit our horizons.

The Southern influence is most pronounced in songs like the title track Barton Hollow. This song owes a more to great blues traditions than anything else. Joy White's beautiful harmonies on this song belie the desperation in the lyrics. This is my favorite song on the album.

So, I ask you does this lyric look like it comes from a an indie music duo or Robert Johnson?
Ain't going back to Barton Hollow
Devil gonna follow me e'er I go
Won't do me no good washing in the river
Can't no preacher man save my soul

Here's the official video:

For comparison and as a "live performance check", here's a 1 guitar, 2 voice acoustic performance of the song:

One of the great things about YouTube is that you can now see how artists actually sound in live performance. It's one of my favorite ways to gauge artists. As much as I appreciate a great studio recording, if an artist can't pull off a version that's as good or better live, I always think a little less of them. The Civil Wars performance here is every bit as compelling as a studio recording, to my ear.

The group's breakthrough was when their song Poison & Wine" was picked up by Grey's Anatomy and played in it's entirety over a montage of two characters' relationship during season 6 of the show. Here's the video to Poison & Wine

Here's another cool thing. Early in their careers, (their second show, actually) they played at Eddie's Attic in Decatur, GA. The club's sound guy recorded the show and gave them a copy. They released the complete recording and you can download it for free here. That's cool; props to the band for making that available. It's a great show.

That's all for this week, music lovers. Thanks for reading, and let me know what you want to hear about next.