BEST OF 2011: 17. The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow

It was one of those occasional Later performances where your ears prick up thirty seconds in, by a minute you’re sat mesmerised on the edge of the sofa and by the end of the song, you’re ordering the album online. The last one I can remember was Laura Marling’s performance of ‘New Romantic some years ago. However, a few months back, it happened again with this duo, during an episode I’d tuned into for a performance from the now rather more established Marling. Stripped back and simple, not massively dissimilar to the album itself, their appearance was spellbinding. This was, in part, down to the visible delight Joy Williams and John Paul White took in performing their songs and also the way in which the pair’s voices coalesced majestically across both their own compositions and a cover of ‘Billie Jean’ that really shouldn’t work, but nevertheless does.

CW11

That’s the first of two songs I heartily recommend by this band which aren’t even on the standard edition of this enchanting album. The second – hey, let me get it out of my system – is another Jackson cover, this time ‘I Want You Back’. Now, this is one of the greatest pop songs of all time and I would, under normal circumstances, suggest any covers would be both unnecessary and exceptionally foolish. I’m looking at you, Devlin. But, this slowed, melancholy reading of the otherwise exuberant track is terrific. Unfortunately, it’s a download bonus track only, so buy the vinyl from your local independent record shop and then shell out the extra 79p to pick up this track, just to feel complete.

The album itself plays on all of the strengths I’ve already picked out, particularly the magical interplay of the two voices. ‘I’ve Got This Friend’ is an absolute gem and, with the most basic of drum thuds behind it, plucked guitar lines and turn-taking in the verses, by the time the chorus comes along with the two voices harmonising, you’ll be floored. Album opener ‘20 Years’ and ‘C’est La Mort’ are delicate pieces accompanied by little more than a touch of xylophone or plaintive piano beside their standard acoustic guitar. They may seem a little slight, but the melodies don’t take long to become comfortingly familiar.

The emotional turmoil of a relationship doomed to failure yet hard to resist is played out emotively in the slow-burning, slow-building ‘Poison and Wine’, featuring the repeated pained refrain “I don’t love you, but I always will.” You’ll probably need to pause and play that one again before carrying on with the rest of the album. When The Civil Wars shift up a gear, they demonstrate their capacity to carve up your cold little heart with the unleashing of just one aching, elongated vowel. While the musical backdrop may only occasionally reach ‘mildly raucous’, the vocals are what ‘Barton Hollow’ is all about, and its title track is a bluesy foot stomper on which both Williams and White soar above the music. For some it will be too delicate, and I would imagine it would be quite easy to dismiss in a ‘forty minute listen at the computer to rant at all my message board, ahem, friends’ kind of way. But if you want to hear something plainly beautiful then come and join the initiated.

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