In Brief: An almost flawless folk album that rather definitively puts Joy Williams’ CCM pop past firmly behind her.
It can be extremely difficult for an artist to escape an audience’s preconceived notions once they’ve been pigeonholed. Start your career off in a genre or musical subculture that is widely derided by critics and/or the general public, and it’s usually the case that people will sniff out your past and assume you can’t do anything beyond that, despite your best attempts to reinvent yourself. This probably goes double for any artist that tried to emerge from the ghetto of Christian pop music, and triple if they were seen as an artist marketed to a teenage audience during their tenure there. One of the best-known recent examples of an artist successfully escaping that ghetto is Katy Perry – though I’ve made no secret of my disdain for what she’s doing now. But another artist who comes to mind that I regarded as simple teenybopper fluff when she first hit the scene, and who has now evolved into something much more palatable to the outside world, is Joy Williams. She debuted in 2001 at the ripe young age of 19, and while I showed no interest, she began to blossom as a songwriter, to the point where I found her third album Genesis mildly enjoyable, as she showed signs of wanting to try on other stylistic hats beyond just what would appeal to a young audience. Make no mistake, it was still glossy Christian pop. And she sort of fell off the radar after that, owing partially to her marriage and just wanting to immerse herself in family life for a while. When she emerged again in 2009 with some scattered EPs, eventually announcing a new project called The Civil Wars, my first thought was, “How nice for you. It may be interesting music, and I’ll probably check some of it out, but it’s probably gonna fly way under the radar.” What can I say? I’m cynical when it comes to an artist’s pet side projects – even if the music is good, I tend to assume almost no one but a handful of diehard fans digging for news on the Internet will notice.
As it turns out, I was totally wrong. While The Civil Wars – a singer/songwriter duo made up of Williams and John Paul White – seems as Nashville-bred as any of their CCM contemporaries, right down to the Charlie Peacock producer’s credit on their debut album, it turns out that they’ve gotten quite a bit of exposure in the realm of folk and country music. I suppose they have Taylor Swift to thank for that to some degree, but thankfully Barton Hollow isn’t the starry-eyed and overly pitch-corrected pop blandness that Taylor likes to call country music. Honestly, only a few tracks resemble the twangy nature of old-school country, while none of it resembles the hybrid pop that passes as country these days. You’ll hear banjos and fiddles and slide guitar from time to time, but for the most part, this is a simple but lovely folk album, centered on simple acoustic guitar, piano, and the sweet-and-sour combination of Williams and White’s voices. Both contribute a number of instruments, as do Peacock and some of Nashville’s brightest and best studio players who were brought in to help out. But it never feels cluttered or overproduced, which is actually surprising for Peacock, a man with a knack for a pop hook. His involvement here is a true exercise in getting out of the way and letting the artist do their thing, then adding subtle colors as needed to help flesh out their vision. It’s a nearly flawless approach. About the only thing I can fault it for is the fact that these dozen thoughtfully written songs – with not a bad one in the bunch, mind you – can feel a bit sleepy all strung together. You may have heard the sharp-angled, angsty title track, with both voices on full wail, as your grand introduction to this duo, but it’s the only thing on the album that even comes close to “edgy”. The rest vacillates between quietly sweet and quietly brooding. And I totally respect that, though my ears do long for a bit of variance now and again.
The Civil Wars’ most surprising asset is their songwriting. I thought I had Williams pegged as a songwriter, finding her admirable for her attempts to be taken seriously by penning songs for other artists while in the midst of recording her own work, wanting to be sure she was known for more than just a cutesy voice. But none of her previous inspirational material (or the occasional lovey-dovey ballad) could have prepared me for the longing and heartbreak expressed here. White, for his part, is a wildcard, since I have no idea where he came from, but it’s one of those stories of musicians from very different worlds having a chance meeting, uttering the famous last words “Hey, we should work together some time”, and actually following up on that idea. These two work magic together, not just singing duets to complement each other vocally, but often playing distinctive characters that interact with one another over the course of a song. If you didn’t know anything about their personal lives, you’d assume they were a married couple with some serious issue to work out. I mean, just look at the cover photo – the two of them sitting in some sort of a nice restaurant, with Williams shying away and looking genuinely ticked off, while White stares directly into the camera with this look on his face like, “Yep, this happens every time we go out”. It’s indicative of the way the duo chose their name – a sort of playfully antagonistic partnership, the two of them challenging each other to be more than they would be alone, confronting head-on the ways that they might not see eye-to-eye and meeting in the middle. It’s downright weird to hear them singing some of these songs, in which they might throw dejected barbs back and forth in one song and then sing sweetly and apologetically in the next, ultimately pining over love lost and love they hope to find again. I’d be a bit perplexed if I were Joy Williams’ real-life husband or John Paul White’s real-life wife. But it’s important to let songwriters do what they do best, and not assume they can only write from their own experiences. Whether these are stories of their own past heartbreaks, the pain that friends have gone through, or just the made-up exploits of fictional characters, the duo sells them all in an entirely believable way.
Together, Williams and White have crafted one of the most exquisite folk records to find its way into my collection in a long time – listening to Barton Hollow reminds me of the hushed, immersive experience I had when I first discovered the tragically short-lived Eastmountainsouth seven years ago. Some of Nickel Creek‘s more intimate, less flashy moments come to mind here as well, and while we’re on the subject of groups that called it quits well before their time, I’ll even say that the mellow side of the obscure sibling trio Chasing Furies comes to mind occasionally. The Civil Wars couldn’t help but be an instant win for me – they remind me of too many groups that I was sad to lose. And I can only hope that this precarious partnership finds a way to outlast all of these groups that I’m probably jinxing them with just by bringing them up.
1. 20 Years
Nimble-fingered guitar and mandolin lead off the album, the mood light and lilting, yet cautious and considered at the same time. John and Joy sing in unison on three simple verses that sketch the aftermath of a relationship gone awry. A tattered old note is passed over someone’s door – possibly a declaration of love, or at least a request for forgiveness. Alas, it goes unanswered, the song left open-ended. The subtle layers present in the song – like the bells and violin that wriggle their way up out of the woodwork – are a good template for how most of this album works. Despite there being a lot of participants in many of the songs, the mood is kept intimate, free from percussion, with the instrumental melodies expressive, but not overtly designed to show off.
2. I’ve Got This Friend
This is probably one of the only songs on the album that I’d consider “happy-go-lucky”, since it’s got a coy attitude to it that makes me think Williams probably had more of a hand in it than White. Have you ever had someone make up “this friend” who has a problem, just so they can ask you for your opinion on said problem without revealing that they’re actually talking about themselves? That’s sort of the language these two are speaking as they sing back and forth about a supposed “friend” each of them has, who sounds like an ideal match for the other. It’s sort of like an open secret between the two characters in the song, both of them probably knowing what game they’re playing without either of them actually acknowledging it. It’s a bit on the cutesy side, but the intertwining vocals in the chorus sell it pretty well anyway.
3. C’est La Mort
This feels to me like one of the album’s sparser songs, mostly centered on the gentle tinkling of Joy’s piano and the dry, even strum of John’s guitar. (Though there are other elements like organ and violin, which are once again very subtle.) It’s actually fitting, since the song is about being in some of the most down-and-out places a soul can reach. This is where the tension that begins to show makes The Civil Wars tick – the opening verse makes it sound like John is pretty much wishing someone would go jump in a lake: “Swan dive down eleven stories high/Hold your breath until you see the light/You can sink to the bottom of the sea…” But then the fourth line reveals where he’s going with it: “Just don’t go without me.” So what started off sounding a bit cynical is actually a song of commitment, stating a willingness to follow that person into their own individual hell, if that’s what it takes to stay together. Joy’s verse follows suit with similar observations, culminating in a chorus that drops a bit of French: “C’est la vie (That’s life)/C’est la mort (That’s death)/You and me/Forevermore.”
4. To Whom It May Concern
Many a songwriter has tackled the well-worn subject of writing a love letter to that special someone who hasn’t come into their lives yet. The Civil Wars’ take on this subject is about as tender as you could want, floating on a gentle waltz of carefully plucked guitar, violin and cello. If Joy had cut a solo version of this song, I would have not at all been surprised to hear it on one of her earlier albums – not that it’s glossy or poppy by any means, but just because it aches with the yearning of a much younger, more wide-eyed and innocent woman. (Thus, chronologically, it seems odd coming at this stage of her life, and even odder as a duet with John. It’s all good. I’m a married guy and my heart still melts for these songs that show solidarity for the single hopefuls out there.) The duo might hit a couple of trite notes here (I wouldn’t blame you for being tempted to think Michael Bublé already cornered the market on singing to someone you haven’t met yet), and there’s also that nitpicky part of me has to wonder how John can count down the days to an event that he doesn’t know the exact date of. But this one’s so earnest, so humble, so easy to sympathize with, that I still find myself falling head over heels for it.
5. Poison & Wine
This is where the love/hate relationship comes out in full force. The Civil Wars don’t tend to be long on lyrics, but they sure know how to evoke an emotional, relatable situation with few words. Williams and White trade off lines here, and the effect is immediate, the words tinging powerfully even though they are softly sung. He sings, “You only know what I want you to”, which she answers with “I know everything you don’t want me to.” His response: “Your mouth is poison, your mouth is wine.” Hers: “You think your dreams are the same as mine.” These words evoke a couple at a standstill, feeling the pressure of a commitment to love each other even when they’re not feeling it, or at least that’s what I gather from the simple yet contradictory chorus: “I don’t love you, but I always will”. That repeated line is used to great effect, as the most cautious, muted guitar strum gradually builds up to a quiet storm, accompanied by the first appearance of drums on the album, which makes this about the closest The Civil Wars get to a “power ballad”. It’s a song that seemed very plain to me at first, until I slowed down and immersed myself in its quiet drama, the couple turning away from one another, each trying to fight the urge to reach out a hand, hoping the other will do it at first. What relationship, if it lasts long enough, doesn’t hit these rocky shoals from time to time?
6. My Father’s Father
“Travel songs” are a mainstay of folk music. This quiet number sort of sets us up for the title track to follow, and it’s pretty easy here to picture a man seated in a boxcar, picking away at a guitar as he watches the scenery fly by, hoping the trip lasts long enough for him to finish composing his song, but not long enough for him to get caught stowing away. This one’s simply about returning to a home you haven’t visited in a while – maybe the trees are different now, maybe some shops have closed up or new ones have opened, maybe the same neighbors you used to know aren’t there. But the place still carries with it vivid memories of the experiences you had there, or the stories you were told of your family history that took place there. While my mind tends to skip over this song because I’m in a hurry to get to the action, I will note that it’s the rare moment where a non-acoustic instrument actually wriggles its way to the forefront (the more synthetic keyboard sounds in the latter half of the song). It’s introduced gently enough that it doesn’t seem out of place, sort of adding to the moody ambiance of a long, weary journey that the singer has mixed feelings about.
7. Barton Hollow
“Whoooooooah!” Yeah, here we go! White digs into an aggressive, angular strum pattern that, for all of its acoustic twang, is also oddly reminiscent of the riff from Elbow‘s “Grounds for Divorce”. This one’ll be a shock to the system if you were enjoying settling into the album’s gentle lull, since the emphasis is more on pure volume and soul than it is on being pretty, which means it can sound at times like White and Williams are fighting to see which of their raspy wails can be heard over the other. It’s appropriate enough for a song about a trip to some backwater place that perhaps you’re a bit embarrassed to have come from, where you learned of a God of wrath and judgment from pulpit-pounding preachers as a child, and that effect reverberates into your adult life, making you feel like no amount of bathing or baptism can save you. Apparently someone’s identifying with it, because this is the lead single and something’s gotta be helping to move those units. It sort of fits into the “harder” end of country – you could clap and stomp along to the beat and get riled up enough to want to burn a barn down. But I can definitely see the Christian music side of the Nashville audience cocking an eyebrow at this one, especially considering the line “Won’t do me no good washing in the river/Can’t no preacher man save my soul.” I don’t see it as a denouncement of faith, myself – more like a realization that sometimes you grow older and realize that the religious system you grew up in can be unforgiving and extremely limiting, compared to all that there is to learn about God and forgiveness in the wider world beyond. But that’s my own interpretation, skewed by my own experiences. Either way: killer song!
8. The Violet Hour
We’re back in mellow mode now, but that’s not at all a bad thing. Here, John and Joy manage to communicate the wonder of a beautiful place by using no words at all. Joy’s piano provides the lead melody, setting the scene for a breathtaking summer sunset, colored richly with minor key as the sky melts gradually into darker hues and eventual blackness. John’s guitar plucks out an eerily beautiful rhythm of 6/8 – I get delightful chills as I recall the Chasing Furies song “Whisper Softly”, which takes a coincidentally similar approach. Cello and violin contribute to the quiet grace of this simple moment, as the heat of the day gives way to the peaceful cool of night, with nothing to do but sit out on the porch and watch the stars come out. The final piano chord, which rings out in repetition like the chiming of a clock, is the perfect note to fade out on.
9. Girl with the Red Balloon
Hope you’re okay with the languid slow dancing in 6/8 time, because we’re going to be doing that for two more tracks still. This one is probably The Civil Wars’ most intriguing song in terms of the story that it tells – you can tell that two people have lost touch with each other, but the details are fuzzy in terms of how exactly they fell out of contact, or how well they even knew each other in the first place. It could have been a chance meeting – a guy identifies a beautiful woman on the street by an unusual item she is carrying such as a balloon, is intrigued by the way she carries herself, and maybe they strike up a conversation in a nearby cafe? They connect over drinks; she is flattered by his smooth talking, but she never even catches his name before something comes up and one of them has to leave. I find myself making up a story here, and you might see a different one in your mind’s eye, or maybe you’ll fixate on the lovely strings and White’s expressive finger-picking, and the way that Williams hums along with it, and lose all track of the words. There’s just so much to enjoy here, especially during the bridge when the strings bring the drama to a full, but sad, sense of climax.
This might be, hands-down, the most uncomfortable song on this album. It’s also one of the most striking and sadly beautiful. Joy is very much thrust into the spotlight here, making it the only song on the album that I can think of where John doesn’t sing any lead vocals – only harmony during the chorus. The music almost seems to tiptoe around her uncomfortable confession, the guitar and cello plucking out a triple meter, as she asks a loved one if he’s even bothered noticing the total fog she’s been in. She feels that she’s “sleepwalking” because she’s stuck in a loveless relationship – unlike most other love songs about the irresistible nature of falling, this one’s about falling out of love, and it’s just one of those things that is painful to consider, and that makes you feel horrible if you’re ever put in the position of having to admit it to someone. The chorus goes into full emotional breakdown mode, the strings allowed to let the tears fall freely as she begs to be understood and set free. The effect is similar to that of Court Yard Hounds‘ devastating ballad “Gracefully”, and I seriously hope to God that the circumstances which led to the song being written are not.
11. Forget Me Not
Now this is a country-song. You just can’t ignore it – it’s there in the old-timey harmonies and the fiddle pushed right up to the front. The angst of the past few songs has given way to reconciliation, and the two sing in unison about waiting for one another, wanting to be together again, and growing old and gray, and it’s easy to picture some country-western super-couple singing this fifty years ago. (Alternatively, throw in some jazzy overtones and I bet you Over the Rhine could work some real magic with this one.) Like I said earlier about “I’ve Got This Friend”, it falls a bit on the cutesy side, but it’s appropriately placed as a breather after half an album’s worth of melancholy.
12. Birds of a Feather
The album closes with a song that I have no qualms about interpreting as a direct, deliberate description of an artistic partnership, rather than a romantic one. Though it could just as easily inform the troubled yet indispensable romances described in some of the other songs, I tend to view this one as a statement about how two songwriters who could just as easily have gone about their business are poked and prodded to do something better with themselves by the other person who just has to get under their skin, who just can’t leave well enough again. Here they trade their most playful remarks back and forth: “She’s the sea I’m sinking in/He’s the ink under my skin/Sometimes I can’t tell where I end/Where I leave off and he begins.” Their ultimate conclusion is that even though they seem like oil and water, they belong together: “But who could do without you?” The guitar strumming – while not nearly as sharp-edged as “Barton Hollow”, rings out with confident, colorful chords, and actually works its way up to a pretty good gallop once the song reaches its bridge. It’s a fitting note to end on, as if to say, “Yeah, we argue about stuff, but ultimately, that makes our relationship stronger.”
And that’s The Civil Wars in a nutshell – an unusual partnership forged out of the differences between two people from vastly different worlds, who each hold the missing piece to the other’s puzzle, despite sometimes wanting to play keep-away with that piece. They possess a magic together that gives them both keen insight into how a lot of people’s relationships are, and it’s this strength and their commitment to keeping the music down to earth that makes them such a refreshing discovery here in the digital age. Interviews with the duo would seem to indicate that both are looking to pre-empt their solo careers and make The Civil Wars their full-time gig, so I’ll cross my fingers and say that I hope we can look forward to many more great things from White and Williams in the future.
WHAT’S IT WORTH TO ME?
20 Years $1.50
I’ve Got This Friend $1
C’est La Mort $1
To Whom It May Concern $1.50
Poison & Wine $1.50
My Father’s Father $1
Barton Hollow $2
The Violet Hour $2
Girl with the Red Balloon $1.50
Forget Me Not $1
Birds of a Feather $1
Joy Williams: Vocals, piano, organ, bells
John Paul White: Vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, bass, banjo
LISTEN FOR YOURSELF:
Originally published on Epinions.com.