The album opens with the deceptively uptempo “I Have This Friend,” a song about two people working towards setting friends up on a blind date that just never quite comes together. “C'est la Mort” plays like a music box melody, tender and intimate, with a thread of sorrow inching quietly through. The album is marked by a sparseness. Bare bones production keeps the instrumental muddle to a minimum, and plucked, rather than strummed . This helps to capture the air of fragility that marks even tender love songs like “To Whom It May Concern” with an air of wistful melancholia. Joy Williams' voice blends well with the almost Appalachian blend of the music, a pristine soprano that flits around the arrangements like a sparrow. John Paul White, on the other hand, has a deeper, rougher voice that provides a bass that the music would otherwise be missing. “You only know what I want you to,” White taunts before Williams replies “I know everything you don't want me to” on Poison and Wine, a quiet, taut back and forth in a dysfunctional relationship. Its easy to get lost in the beauty of the music and forget that Williams and White first came together as songwriters, and that they compose songs exceptionally well. They deftly balance “My Father's Father” into something that is either a happy song about returning home, or a bittersweet ballad about burying a family member. “If I die before I wake, I know the road my soul will take,” Williams wails on the title track, sounding not unlike a lost banshee. They follow this track with The Violet Hour, a georgous instrumental song waiting to lift the protagonist of Barton Hollow to the heaven he feared he'd miss. “The Girl With the Red Balloon” follows in the tradition of country ballad like “Delta Dawn” and “She's Out There Dancing Alone,” about that woman in the bar who is just there, without the man she has been waiting on for decades. “Falling” takes a twist, finding the protagonist helplessly falling out of love with her current suitor. “Forget Me Not” is a slow country weeper. The main body of the album ends with the playful “Birds of a Feather,” the perfect hipster love song, complete with a guy who is “the ink under my skin.” The Civil Wars picked an odd pair of tunes for their bonus tracks. The first is a murmured, subdued rendition of The Jackson Five's “I Want You Back.” The second is an eerie “Dance Me To The End of Love” that seems to almost dwell in the idea that love only ends at death.
The Civil Wars have been getting a lot of buzz out of date. Sources from Paste to Taylor Swift have named Barton Hollow the best debut album of the year. The hype is, for the most part, deserved. They do fall just a bit too much into what is rapidly become a sub-genre of artists who sound vaguely like Alison Krauss. However, that is a genre that leaves room for a lot of talent and requires really good music. They are a bit on the sleepy side, but they add enough tension and emotion to their music to balance out the slow and quiet nature of their songs. While they may leave a bit of room for someone to overtake the title, Barton Hollow is as solid a debut album as country music has seen for a while.