Tuesday, May 22, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1140: The Civil Wars

After an extended weekend filled with a lot of emotional ups and downs, I returned to work and encountered…mostly downs. Ah well. As Bad Santa teaches, they can’t all be winners, kid.

Disc 1140 is… Barton Hollow
Artist: The Civil Wars

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? Joy Williams and John Paul White share an intimate yet awkwardly distant moment. They thought they could make it work, but she’s a wine girl and he likes whiskey.

How I Came To Know It: This album was #66 on Paste Magazine’s Top100 indie folk albums of all time. I gave it a shot, and I liked it.

How It Stacks Up:  Despite Paste Magazine’s opinion, I rank their 2013 self-titled album (reviewed back at Disc 1128) at number one, dropping “Barton Hollow” into second place

Ratings: 3 stars

Maybe it is that I gave this album an extended listen just last weekend, or maybe it is that I recently reviewed their other record, but I wasn’t overwhelmed by “Barton Hollow” the way many music critics before me have been.

This record got a lot of hype back in 2011 when it came out, or at least a lot of hype within the subset of obscure indie folk music. But listening to it, I just kept thinking that that it was good, but nothing special.

All the elements of their eponymous follow up are there. Joy Williams and John Paul White have voices that play prettily off one another, the guitar work is understated and evocative and the songs have melodies that surprise (and sometimes) delight you. I didn’t feel the emotional connection in places, though, and it took away from all that technical virtuosity.

The record starts with “20 Years” which features a catchy bit of finger picking on guitar, and some lovely loose harmonies. The song floats along with a haunting lift and fall, each verse punctuated by that same guitar sequence.

20 Years” explores lost love and regret, as do a lot of the songs on “Barton Hollow.” I don’t know what eventually came between Williams and White that caused their breakup after only two records, but it is clear that they’ve mastered how to sing songs about melancholy and romantic disconnect, even if they weren’t feeling it yet themselves.

Sometimes it gets so heavy it feels theatrical, and I was often reminded of that musical number in a Disney film or a musical where the hero and heroine are in their own scenes, singing songs about how sad they feel, and how no one will understand them. Lots of hands-to-breast and eyes cast skyward against the injustice of it all, etc.

On “Poison & Wine” it works wonderfully, showing that even when you are emotionally in sync with someone, it doesn’t mean they are good emotions. The song is bitter and sweet exactly as they intended. Later, “Girl With the Red Balloon” and “Falling” explore the same emotional landscapes but feel overwrought and filled with bathos. “Girl with the Red Balloon” sounds like the title of some European art film and the song felt like its musical equivalent, overwrought and overstuffed with forced metaphor.

It is a cautionary tale that a song of lost love is like the surface of a pond. It’s the surface tension of hinting at what’s underneath that makes it work; push too hard and you fall through and break the spell.

They take a brief break from all this tear-jerking reverie on the title track. “Barton Hollow”; a comparatively upbeat track about some heist gone wrong, filled with murder and the dread of the damned. A lot of the music on the album is light and ethereal but Barton Hollow opts for a comparatively crunchy (for folk) guitar strum that sits down with some gusto into all that crime and sin. I could have used a couple more like this to give the record more balance.

Instead, it is followed by an instrumental piece titled “The Violet Hour” which is a compelling bit of piano that reminded me favourably of early Enya, stripped down to its essential elements. Like early Enya, it was a lovely composition but not something I’d put on often unless I was having a hard time getting to sleep on account of eating cheese too late in the evening or something.

Unfortunately, that would be the summary of “Barton Hollow” as a whole. The record has some good moments, and Williams and White are gifted musicians but the record was a bit too mopey, and not in a good way. The strength of songs like “20 Years” and “Poison & Wine” easily secure it a place on my shelves, but it isn’t going to come off for a spin in the disc player as often as the record’s reputation would suggest.

Best tracks: 20 Years, I’ve Got this Friend, Poison & Wine, Barton Hollow

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