Barton Hollow (2011)
Read the Main Review here!
20 Years A
David Bowie’s most iconic album begins with a song called “Five Years.” Also, weirdly, it literally took me five years to finally getting around to reviewing this album. Yes, I had a Civil Wars page on my website for more than 5 years without having reviewed a Civil Wars album… Oh, I like this song! The Civil Wars don’t even beat around the bush. They start right away with a song about a note that somebody wrote 20 years ago and slid underneath a door. Probably a break-up note, and the recipient of the note harbors some kind of guilt over its content. The ever-so-grim melody, dramatic vocals (which Williams and White share equally), really do seem to capture how someone might feel, reflecting 20 years of a long-lost love, and hoping that they might someday be redeemed or forgiven. And when I say “atmosphere” I mean, this song (and all these songs) are bleak as anything. This is nothing but Williams and white singing with an acoustic guitar (with just slight swells of strings midway though, and a tinkle or two of a xylophone), but their vocal performances are completely compelling, and their forlorn melody is beautiful. And the melody does seem like it came out of the 18th Century, even though I’ve never heard Joan Baez sing an old tune quite as complex as this one. (If Joan Baez didn’t sing it, then it probably didn’t exist. Sorry.)
I’ve Got This Friend A
I should mention that these guys could come up with interesting refrains with their acoustic guitar. In other words, these songs are about as catchy as hyper-serious folk music that sounds like it came out of the 18th Century can be. The songs are about somebody these guys know who is lonely and waiting for the “right one.” I would suggest eharmony. Or whatever the 19th Century version of that was, which was probably your parents marrying you off to a stranger for a couple of chickens and a candle stick. Those were the days!
C’est La Mort A
This song begins with some high-pitched piano twinkles and an acoustic guitar to match. This song is very pretty! Even though it’s very sad. Like everything else is here. (The song translates to “Such is death,” after all, and they made the song title French, presumably because the French are more into self-torturing themselves with existential crises than we are.) ((These track reviews will probably just be filled with jokes from now on, since there really isn’t a whole lot of diversity on this album.))
To Whom it May Concern A-
Their acoustic guitar refrains continue to stick to me. Somehow, I wish that they wouldn’t do that so well, just so I wouldn’t have to give all these songs an A-. I mean, the whole purpose of these forlorn folk songs is to put me in a depressed mood. Therefore, I don’t want to like these songs. But I do. These guys are amazingly compelling at writing and performing these songs. That swell of the cello that occurs as these two repeatedly sing the line “I’ve missed you but I haven’t met you” gives me the shivers up my spine. Oh, these poor, two lonely souls.
Poison & Wine A+
This is probably the most well-loved song these guys ever did, and it’s for good reason: It’s exactly the solemn, gut-wrenching sort of song everything is here, except it just HITS me. Squarely in the chest. Even from the first few seconds—the bleak piano and slow, muted rhythms from an acoustic guitar, and White singing about some kind of toxic relationship. But then the song builds up elegantly into a crescendo as these two start belting out repeatedly “Oh I don’t love you but I always will.” Just leaves me slack-jawed.
My Father’s Father A-
Couldn’t they have just called this song “My Grandpappy?” Would have saved a bit of typing. But anyway, this song is as bleak as everything they come up with, but the melody continues to interest me; there’s something richly engrossing about it. The acoustic guitar refrains capture my attention, and the bleak melody sung as a duet so compellingly. Yes, they’ve been doing that all throughout this album, but they continue to be so good at it that I can’t help but bring it up all the time.
Barton Hollow A
Well this song’s actually different. Instead of being a forlorn folk ballad, this one has a heavy, driving riff behind it. Their vocal performances are just phenomenal here. If pretty much all their songs on this album weren’t excellent as they are, I’d be demanding more songs like this. Songs you can stomp your foot to. It’s pretty amazing how easily I’m able to get into this.
The Violet Hour A
I should also be able to allow this song to be admitted as hard evidence in the ”Barton Hollow” is more diverse than you think. Because this is an instrumental, and it’s a beautiful one! But it’s so bleak and sad that it hardly needed gut-wrenching vocal performances or lyrics to tell us so. It’s lead by a piano, which plays such a beautiful melody. This is just melancholy all over the place.
Girl with the Red Balloon A
Guess what? This is another hyper-dramatic song about somebody who has lost a love. They once again nail it with their vocal performances—they’re just putting a dagger into my gut and twisting it around with those vocals. Holy cow. Melodically, however, this isn’t one of the songs I like the best from this album—but lyrically, this may be my favorite song. Because it’s not just a song about somebody being sad about lost love. It puts specific images in my mind. I like those kinds of lyrics. (”Keep her glass full of cheap champagne / She will tell of a man with no name / Smoke and mirrors have done her in / She’s in love and she won’t be again”)
Do these guys ever let up? I mean just once, can these guys give me a break? Why do they have to write such bleak and gut-wrenching songs—and be so compelling at it. Just once, in this album, I want to say something like: “I want to like this song, but it’s just not exciting enough for me.” Because I think most songs like this have the net result in me wanting to shut off my brain and wishing I were listening to ABBA music. But geez…hear these guys swell up again into the mournful chorus. Seriously, these guys are killing me.
Forget Me Not A-
Of all the songs here, this is one that I would believe most actually comes from the 19th Century. The song is seems structured in a more traditional format, and the melody seems more correct for the era. (It would shock me to hear a song like Poison & Wine coming out of a scratchy old record—it just seems too modern—but “Forget Me Not” sounds like they could have gotten it off a Carter Family record.
Birds of a Feather A
We made it all the way to the end of the album, and they nail it yet again. Isn’t that weird? Not much different here than what we’ve been hearing this entire album, apart from the middle of the song where the musical textures get heavier and more involved than they usually are in the album. The vocal performances continue to be nothing but engaging, as these two continue to share vocal duties.
I Want You Back B
Somehow, they should have quit when they were ahead. Not that this is a terrible song, or anything, but it’s actually striking me more like how I think the rest of the album should have struck me. That is, this is kind of dull. Of course, they continue to sound nice as always, but nothing about the melody strikes me.
Dance Me to the End of Love A-
Yeah, they should have quit when they were ahead, if only because this is their worst song title. It’s a song title someone would have come up with if they were trying to make fun of these guys. But I actually like this song. It’s bleak and depressing as anything, but they instrument it with their acoustic guitars as a rather pleasant waltz.
The Civil Wars (2013)
Read the Main Review here!
The One That Got Away A-
And they continue in the same, morose folky vein that characterized their previous album. The twangy guitars are back, they create a darkened atmosphere, and the Wild West imagery returns in my mind. Again, the main reason anyone would want to listen to this are the lead vocal performances, which continue to be powerful, even though these guys only seem to know one way to sing.
I Had Me a Girl A
Now this one packs an even heavier punch than the previous song did, even though the atmosphere and bitter, hyper-dramatic air of this song is roughly unchanged. I’d think of it like Nick-Cave-lite, as this ushers in a tremendous, bitter rage, but … well, they don’t seem nearly as treacherous about it as Cave would, but they nevertheless hold their own. White and Williams intermittently take on lead vocals, they belt it out as much as they could, and they are convincing at it.
Same Old Same Old A-
This is a quieter, understated folk song, which Williams and White sing together some pretty sad stuff. (”Do I love you / Oh, I do / And I’m going to ‘til I’m gone / But if you think that I can stay in this / Same old, same old / Well, I don’t / I don’t”) In fact, the song starts out a little too understated for me at the beginning, since they don’t immediately draw me in the song with an interesting vocal hook or guitar texture or anything. Where these guys do get very convincing are the emotional crescendos, which do catch fire.
Dust to Dust B+
Here is another stoic, slow song. It’s produced heavily, and it sounds quite nice, but the melody doesn’t draw me in so much. Of course, the two lead singers continue to sing about depressing things, and they’re as convincing as they ever are.
This is a song with a melody that perks me up, and I actually can take with me after the album’s through playing. Yes, they continue to sound depressed ‘n’ stuff, but there are actually moments in this song that take flight, particularly around the two-minute mark, when it gets quite uplifting. Then at the end of the song, there’s a rather glorious electric guitar build-up…until it suddenly ends with silence. Williams’ vocal performance sounds as dramatic and fantastic as it always does, but I can especially appreciate what she’s singing about here, lamenting the end of a relationship, but she begs him to just keep holding her.
Devil’s Backbone A-
These guys do a really great job coming up with these spooky, pounding passages. They didn’t do that quite as often in their debut—although I think I liked that their debut was a little more diverse. The melody here is fine. I would undoubtedly like this song more if it had a melody I could hum with it, but I suppose they’re busy making thunderous sounds with their electric guitars.
From This Valley A
I had to look up this song to make sure that it wasn’t actually a country western cover from the ‘50s or ‘60s. Couldn’t you picture any country-western singer form back then singing this and having a hit with it? I’m not always wild about that kind of music, but their melody is nice, and as they had been doing all throughout this album, the instrumentation is heavy and dark.
Tell Mama B+
Huh, when I looked up the previous song to see whether it was a cover from the old days, I notice this song actually was a cover from the old days. Except it wasn’t a country song. I wouldn’t have guessed that though, since this just sounds like another one of The Civil Wars’ heavy, modern songs with tons of atmosphere and emotion. It’s yet another very good production, even if I don’t fall in love particularly with the melody.
Oh Henry B+
This starts out with gruffy guitar pounding away, and they proceed on with another stoic, angry song. Do these guys know any other emotion than bitterness? I would also have believed this melody—particularly the chorus—was lifted from an old country song. Though, how the song meanders about darkly in the middle, it does come across like a modern song. I do enjoy listening to this song, even if it would have trouble standing out from everything else here.
Here, The Civil Wars do another cover of an old song. Except it’s not that old. It’s a cover of the song from The Smashing Pumpkins. But this version uses some light, thoughtful arpeggiated guitar, and Williams and White give quiet but desperate vocal performances. It’s a pretty song—and I do like the original (I suppose mainly because of the tubular bells)—but this version is rather long and slow moving. They do end up partly redeeming themselves, however, by bringing in an emotional crescendo by the three-minute mark.
Sacred Heart A
This penultimate song is in French, and I’m scratching my head over what the French language had anything to do with this. Other than, I suppose, the French liked singing about sad things, and they tend to be drama queens, too. I could picture someone like Edith Piaf singing this sad ballad back in the 1950s, and it being well received. The melody really is quite beautiful.
This sounds like it was a Demo or something. Sometimes you hear demos making the final cut of a studio album, because there was an appealing rawness about it that would surely fail to be captured in the studio. But there isn’t anything particularly interesting about the song. In fact, I find the melody to be rather forgettable. Since The Civil Wars broke up before this album came out, I kinda wonder if they just didn’t get around to actually recording the song.