Review Summary: A uniquely beautiful album.
In the ever-growing realm of money-grubbing pop music, it's been exceptionally refreshing to see what can be described as an indie/folk explosion that's been going on . One lone acoustic guitar can be worth countless stories or portrayals; as such, it can definitely mean more than any amount of overbearing synthesizers meant to mask a lack of musical passion or intimacy. Artists like Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, and The Tallest Man on Earth have proven that this softer, folkier side of popular music can work, as have the highly-endearing duo The Civil Wars.
Composing of John Paul White (vocals, guitar) and Joy Williams (vocals, piano), the group have seemed to take the world by storm with their vocal chemistry, extremely romantic lyricism, and stark instrumentation. Despite the minimalism of debut Barton Hollow's material, the album managed to get a Gold certification rather quickly and gained the band numerous Grammy nominations. So what of the record itself? It's short, sweet and to the point; it knows whether to set a certain atmosphere or to back off; it goes back to the folk genre's roots and brings things back to basics, for the most part. Long story short: the album is fascinating.
First off, Joy Williams and John Paul White share an amazing overall vocal presence throughout the entirety of the album, making sure their voices manage to be the most important aspect. Once opener "20 Years" sucks you in with its highly entrancing acoustic guitar motif, the intimate vocal harmonies of the two contrasting singers make for a great way to kick things off. In the lyrical department, most of the songs illustrate personalized desires in the name of love. Songs like "Poison & Wine" and "Birds of a Feather" have the vocalists cleverly bouncing off each others' remarks as if the lyrics became a movie script of sorts. While all of this is going on, keyboards and other sparse instrumental embellishments provide interesting backdrops; the mood is usually somber and wintry, as is heard with "20 Years" and "C'est La Mort," among others. In fact, the sole instrumental number "The Violet Hour" is a wonderfully reflective and dark after the raucous nature of the country-tinged title track preceding it. Very few albums can include so much variety and yet retain a consistent tone, but somehow these two can pull it off with surprising ease. That very fact is exactly what brings about my fascination with the record; no matter how many styles the duo attempt, they have a certain charm that pulls them through in the end anyway... for the most part, at least.
Unfortunately, there are still moments of filler scattered about this gem. "Forget Me Not" is a completely forgettable country song that doesn't benefit from the drawn-out vocal melodies or dull pace it has from the get-go. The same applies, albeit less heavily, to another country-tinged tune called "My Father's Father." It's a decent song, but the slight lack of energy and personality emanating from the singers on just this one bogs it down a great deal. It's sad too, because the song is well-composed and the guitar note-bending makes for some calming lead sections to mix with the acoustic work.
This is, however, the group's debut album, and it's remarkable that they were able to create such a heartwarming and solid first effort. I feel that great things are in store for the band's future if Barton Hollow is any indication; Williams and White share exceptional vocal chemistry, the production and instrumentation offer a nice sense of musical variety, and the stripped down feel of the whole experience is refreshing, despite the record's flaws. While there may exist better indie folk albums, none sound quite like this one; brevity, heart, great folk compositions... what more could one ask for as the last stretch of winter nears?