In one of The Civil Wars’ promo photos, the two members, Joy Williams and John Paul White, are standing listlessly in a dusty, Victorian-era library, dressed in classical clothes and sporting aloof, vaguely morose expressions. As far as sooty indie-folk goes, it’s about as pervasive of a shot as a rapper squatting next two his rims. But it’s a good look on them. Their expertly crafted trad-folk is honed with such precision they deserve any clichés the genre has to offer. Barton Hollow is their first effort together, and it squashes any complaints of redundancy by being elementally and undeniably gorgeous.
Barton Hollow is primarily a vocal album, and Williams and Paul White’s deciduous inflections are almost always conjoined in a lover’s duet. Their voices are strong, imbued with a naturalistic, unprocessed grace, and they work quite well in harmony. Generally, they’re cresting over full-bodied acoustic arrangements, and for two people who’re married to completely different people, they do a remarkable job of sounding utterly smitten with each other. The slow-motion twinkle of “C’est La Mort,” the longing, back-and-forth affection of “To Whom It May Concern,” the quiet sacredness of “Poison & Wine,” they’re all resonating, and appreciatively honest love songs. The Civil Wars’ enchanting romanticism is probably their greatest asset.
It’s easy to say that The Civil Wars have essentially written the same song 12 times and called it an album — and to a certain extent that’s true. Aside from the plains-drifting jangle of the title-track, Barton Hollow moves at a sedate, almost enshrined pace, as if the songs are part of a cinematic narrative – sticking to the pastoral sincerity of, say, Seven Swans-era Sufjan. But the shimmering production, the sublime performances, and the general likability of the characters put forth more than make up for that. Sure, Barton Hollow’s love-swept core and well-worn conventions might make it a tad limited, but for what it sets outs to accomplish, it succeeds with pitch-perfect elegance.