It is Sheila’s birthday week! After a couple days packed with social engagements, last night we chilled out and played board games into the wee hours, listening to some of our favourite Tom Petty albums. After all these years an evening in just chillin’ with the love of my life is still one of my favourite things in the world.
Disc 1058 is…Love & War
Artist: Barton Carroll
Year of Release: 2001 if you believe the “recorded in” section of the CD liner notes, 2006 if you believe the information downloaded onto the CD itself. I couldn’t find anything on the Interweb to confirm it one way or the other.
What’s up with the Cover? Plain old black and white. I’m not a fan of the ampersand, and making it bigger just makes it worse.
How I Came To Know It: I read an article on Paste magazine a couple years ago called “10 More Obscure Folk Albums to Add to Your Collection.” Carroll’s 2013 album “Avery County, I Am Bound to You” made that list and I really liked it. That led me to the rest of his collection.
Then came the realization that this was so obscure I was never going to find it in a record store. Instead, I ordered my three favourite albums direct off Barton’s website, and “Love & War” was one of them. The other two came signed, but “Love & War” was all black, so there was nowhere to sign it.
How It Stacks Up: I have three Barton Carroll albums. Sadly, I must put “Love & War” last on the list. Someone’s got to be last.
Ratings: 3 stars but almost 4
How Barton Carroll isn’t famous is beyond my understanding. “Love & War” is an early album, but his unique style and thoughtful songwriting are already evident.
“Love & War” is a somber affair, with Carroll confessing secrets to you, not all of which are pleasant to hear. His high, quavering vocals have a surprising amount of range. At the lower end he sounds a little bit like Michael Stipe and when he climbs into falsetto he reminded me of Bonnie Prince Billy. Part of both comparisons is the ever-present ache in his delivery, serving to underscore lyrics that are stark and honest.
The record is at its best when it embraces the subject matter of its title: the horrible impacts of war on our ability to love. On “The Way Back to Her” a man sets out for home, rejecting further death and carnage. His plan little more than an earnest prayer with no certainty of success:
“I’ve got a plan gonna set out at light
Won’t be taking me down, won’t be taking me down
Rock in my heart, there’s a rock in my heart
It’s enough with the guns, I’m returning to love
Her face is so sweet and her heart is so bare
And death comes to life at the smell of her hair
If her hand sits in mine I could shake off the blood
And lose sight of his eyes and lose sight of mine
I’m asking you, I’m asking God
Send me to hell, if it’s the way back to her.”
Later, on “Small Thing” Carroll flips the experience, exploring the horrors of war through the eyes of non-combatants swept up in its violence; in this case two German girls being raped in the final days of World War Two.
“I heard that our brothers and our fathers did the same on their side
I heard that our brothers and our fathers did the same during war time
I was a child, I was on the wrong side
I was broken in by broken men with drainin’ eyes
War sleeps deep in a man, long after guns are gone
He loses care for small things and I, I was a small thing.”
Gut-wrenching stuff, made all the more poignant by the narrator’s recognition that in some foreign town, similar war crimes would have been committed by her neighbours, maybe even her family.
Carroll’s guitar work is superb throughout the record. Whether he is laying down a basic strum on “Her Bright Smile Haunts Me Still” or a sublime picking pattern on “Your Name Must Be Mercy” he delivers an exceptional tone that helps ground often heavy and difficult topics.
The album has the stark production I tend to favour as well, although Carroll brings in strings, horn or violin as the situation requires. I particularly like Jim Roth’s pedal steel on Carroll’s cover of the Flying Burrito Brothers’ “Dark End of the Street.” It adds a rich echo that fills that dark street with the weighty import of tainted love. At least I think its Roth's pedal steel…I’m an amateur in instrument identification. Whatever it is, I like it.
If there is a criticism of “Love & War” it would be that some of the melodies resolve in odd ways, and Carroll’s phrasing can occasionally get a bit too inventive. It showcases his understanding of music, but every now and then it detracts from the song’s emotional impact.
However, this is a minor issue and more about my personal preferences than anything wrong on Carroll’s part. “Love & War” is the promise of even greater things to come, and has me looking forward to a deeper delve of the other two albums in my collection.
Best tracks: Dark End of the Street, The Way Back to Her, Small Thing