No-one does slick, commercial folk music quite like the Americans. And there are few better examples than Barton Hollow, the Grammy-winning debut from Nashville's The Civil Wars: a record that most felt was pretty and smooth, if occasionally bland. This year’s release, however, was expected to be cooked from a slighty different recipe. It has been widely reported that Joy Williams and John Paul White can no longer stand the sight of each other. Many hoped that such conflict might have resulted in some chilli being added to the mix.
However, that’s not quite how it turned out. At least not for the first half. One wonders if producer Charlie Peacock was trying too hard to appeal to an audience hung up on the T-Bone Burnett sound. The result is frequently more bitter-saccharine than bitter-sweet (especially on “Same Old Same Old”), and where the duo inject some heavy blues on “I Had Me a Girl” it sounds contrived. Moreover, despite being wrapped up in a "Southern Country" package, the album fails to deliver either a believable sense of place or a real journey of the imagination.
The second half is much better. The harmonies in the closing section of “From the Valley” are wonderful, and “Oh Henry” has that kind of fidgety angst that Martha Wainwright does so well. The most surprising song is “Sacred Heart”, sung in French. Here, Williams’s voice is heartrendingly pure, reminiscent of the Swedish folk band First Aid Kit. I found it hard to listen to it without hitting repeat. Williams's solo vocal may also point towards her future direction. Despite all the talk of this album being full of tension, The Civil Wars really sounds much more like a couple already going their own ways. If, as it seems, this is really a split, hers will surely be the career to watch.