The Civil Wars – Barton Hollow
A Folksy review by Sean M. Hebner
Exclusively written for
4 “Whosawhatsits” out of 5
Welcome to the first installment of “IT CAME…FROM MY WIFES CD WALLET!” This is a series where I’ll randomly take a CD from my beautiful wife Loretta’s collection and give it an honest listen and review.
I should point out that my wife and I have vastly different tastes in music. This will create the cognitive dissonance required to create a HILARIOUS review. Also, when I try to take an unbiased approach to music, I don’t generally have an emotional attachment to it which helps me become a REAL writer!
However, I’ll admit that this particular review is kind of cheating. I’ve been a fan of Folk and Filk music as long as I can remember. One of the first tapes I ever enjoyed as a child (that wasn’t Weird Al or Elton John) was Bay Filk 3, which was recorded in 1983 and featured a younger Mercedes Lackey (on backing vocals on one song) and an aging Peter S. Beagle (author of “The Llast Unicorn”). My mother owned the tape as it featured my former Cousin MEW (www.mewsic.com). Little did my mom know, that my eventual lust for Power Metal and other Folk infused genres of music would stem almost exclusively from this tape.
I say all this to imply that “Civil Wars” is a Folk album. I happen to like it a lot, thank you. Every spin of this record brings out new, exciting positives. The lyrics are a “joy” (HA GET IT!? This album is depressing!), a great mixture of classically influenced Folk and modern, poetic explorations of poetry. You could probably use some of these lyrics in a poetry class. They’re THAT GOOD. Take their single “Poison and Wine,” for example.
“Poison and Wine”*
I find it rare that a song so bitter and honest gets main stream air play. “Poison and Wine” has been referred to as Country and I can see why: once upon a time, this genre was this depressing:
I don’t love you and I always will
I don’t love you and I always will
I don’t love you and I always will
Editor/Boss-man Eric doesn’t know it yet but I’m going to make him cry again. (Editor/Boss-man Eric: Manliness challenge accepted)
I’ m fairly close to crying as I type this. That’s some lyrical heaviness neither of us has encountered since “The Magnetic Fields.” I’m sure Eric has heard more depressing lyrics, but perhaps not something we’ve been mutually exposed too.
Anyway, “Poison and Wine” starts out with the line “You only know what I want you to/I know everything you don’t want me to” and there is only a grand total of like 50 words to the song …and yet it instantly brings to mind relationships from my past. Specifically, dysfunctional relationships where the words “power balance” didn’t exist and from which the pain long dissipated is temporarily restored by these potent lyrics. Thankfully, they indirectly teach me to never repeat those mistakes and should a legitimately REAL problem arise in my marriage to just frickin’ TALK about it. This paragraph brought to you by Life©, ain’t it somthin’? (Editor/Boss-man Eric: life is the only thing worth living for)
Hope, the only thing left at the bottom of “Pandora’s Box” as a way to combat the evils of the world, feels in short supply on this album. I mean it IS here. However, the duo broke up last year only to reunite to make a new album this year, but they will NOT tour.
It seems that one member wants to get famous and the other wants to be a non-sellout. All the turmoil in the band has me thinking that the hope that’s tucked within this album is more superficial than I realized. For a duo this powerful to give up after existing since only 2008, it’s a wonder that they even lasted this long. I’ve found no information to tell which one wanted to end it and which one wanted to take off …your guess is as good as mine.
Not that I like proving my wife wrong about stuff, but while writing this review I told her “wow this is a really ‘hopeless’ album!” Of course, she immediately said “NO ITS NOT!”
The marriage argument game had begun! I countered her witty retort with my own, elucidating that “okay, maybe not ‘hopeless’ but it’s fairly dark…”
Then, I decided to look up the lyrics to the rest of the songs just to see if my instincts on the album were correct. Ammunition is important in this vital arguments, my friend. If you’re married, I know you’re nodding your head in agreement, male or female.
Well anyway, the first track is about a deadbeat father who, after 20 years, won’t claim responsibility for a child from a one night stand. Boom.
The title track “Barton Hallow” is about a man wanted for Murder in…heh, heh…Barton Hallow. He is never going back to the place that was once his home town. Boom boom.
In fact, reading through the lyrics revealed three songs focused on unrequited love, murder, regret, prostitution or just plain loneliness. Mostly Hopeless. Three out of 14 tracks is A LOT of dark….and I LOVED every minute of it.
Heck we can even dabble in cover songs that they did to see if their overall mood as a duo is better when being “casual.” Nope. The Civil Wars covered Portishead’s song “Sour Times” and Michael Jackson’s “Billy Jean”, another song about denial of parental responsibility. They are a tour de force of depressing and heartbreaking heartbreakyness.
“My heart, in the parking garage, with the guitar…you win Civil Wars”
What can I conclude about this venture into my wife’s CD wallet? First of all, my wife’s favorite band is freaking awesome. However, I’m not surprised that they aren’t sustainable. Country music fans dip their toe into the depressing aspects of real life, but tend to confine them only to Johnny Cash or Willie or some other old hat star.
A new group that puts out Cash caliber depression doesn’t really work (at least as a business model) in a world of Brad Paisley or Taylor Swifts.
Yeah, Taylor Swift is mad, but she’s adorable, adorably mad with still less issues than one ALBUM from a duo that’s a bit older and a bit worse for wares. Lastly, my wife thinks this band deserves a seven out of five on the “Whosawhatsits” scale. I’m thinking she’s right…this is some of the best stuff if not THE best Main Line Country music…nay Main Stream Music period has produced in the last 5 years. So I’ve changed my original score to match her request because it really is that good.
Tune in next week when I do, some more METAL YEAH! Goodnight!
Today is a big day for Culture Fusion: our efforts to expand to a wider range of writers and musical interests has hit pay dirt with the introduction of new reviewer Audrey. She enjoys exploring the realms of the strange and unusual and who’s innate understanding of music helps create an informative and enjoyable read.
Her first review delves into the strange and unusual world of Tim Buckley’s experimental period with the classic album “Lorca.”
I’ve found that it’s impossible to have a conversation with someone about Tim Buckley without the subject of his son immediately slipping into the dialogue. So, I will get this out of the way right now: I am not a fan of Jeff Buckley. There, I said it. Shoot me.
Don’t get me wrong: Jeff isn’t bad; I just don’t find him all that interesting. He has a nice voice, and 1994’s Grace had a few good songs on it (his cover of Hallelujah brings me to tears), but as an album, I find it to be completely unremarkable; this is a lot of why it enrages me when he inevitably gets brought up every single time I try to talk about his father.
Seriously, people – I just want to talk about one of my favorite songwriters, not his son. Jeff couldn’t even swim! (Okay, that was bad.)
Also, Tim was just so dreamy. I mean, look at those curls. Swoon.
When I listen to Tim’s output from the year 1970, I can’t help but wonder why he isn’t more recognized and revered. He released two of his strongest records that year: Lorca and Starsailor. The former of these two releases is not only the Tim Buckley album I enjoy the most, but also one of my all-time favorite records.
It was recorded during the same sessions as his 1969 album, Blue Afternoon but they couldn’t be any more different. Tim was trying to fulfill contractual obligations to his record labels during this period and was creating and releasing a lot of new material.
Perhaps as a response to creating so much at once, his music started becoming eccentric. Rather than writing catchy tunes, Lorca found Buckley completely abandoning the binary structure of his songwriting to explore a more free-form style: this led to his songs being much longer than on his previous records. Leaving behind the verse-chorus format allowed him to focus on creating immersive pieces that highlighted his astonishing vocal range and his poetry.
Not only did his lyrical approach begin to differ, his musical approach was similarly altered: this certainly wasn’t the hippie-folk sound that he used on his earlier albums. On Lorca, Tim started incorporating free jazz and avant-garde elements into the compositions, which undoubtedly alienated his fan base.
Fans may have also been alienated by the minimal levels of acoustic guitar on the album. It was no longer the musical focal point and driving force of the tracks. There is almost no percussive element on the record, except for congas in the background of a few songs.
With the exception of perhaps the track ‘Nobody Walkin’’, these songs don’t sound like traditional rock or folk. His voice completely took over and led the songs in much different directions. Largely owing to the unexpected nature of the record, the album was a financial and critical failure.
Side one opens with the title track, which is much more jarring than anything he had previously released. The song begins with the sound of various keyboards (including the pipe organ), an immediate and complete departure from everything he had done before. Tim plays in an unusual and uncomfortable 5/4 time signature, which creates an brooding atmosphere he maintains for 10 long minutes. This is easily the most difficult track on the record, and I’m guessing it probably scared a lot of his folk-oriented fans away from the album.
The other track on side one is called ‘Anonymous Proposition’. I get the impression that Tim must have been depressed when he wrote most of songs on this record: almost every track creates a strong feeling of isolation which is especially strong on this song. The track (which is easily my favorite on the album) features what I feel is the best vocal performance Tim ever recorded: the song appears to deal with an uncommitted relationship, and I cannot help but be moved by his authentic-sounding delivery of lyrics like “love me as if someday you’ll hate me”, knowing that his romance was doomed before it even started. When asked about the piece, Tim said, “It deals with a ballad in a totally personal, physical presentation… It has to be done slowly; it has to take five or six minutes; it has to be a movement. It has to hold you there and make you aware that someone is telling you something about himself in the dark”.
Side two of the record is significantly less challenging than the first. It starts off with the beautiful ‘I Had A Talk With My Woman’ which initially seems to be more uplifting than the rest of the record.
However, when you listen closer to the lyrics, the song reveals itself to be just as depressing as the rest of the album. The track has similar lyrical themes to ‘Anonymous Proposition’: Tim alleges singing about his love from the top of a mountain in one verse, but questions how long the love is going to last in the next. Fans looking for an accessible starting point on Lorca could do well to start here, as it features more similarities to his older work than anything else on the LP while still retaining some of the jazzy elements that are present on side one.
Next, we find a moody piece called ‘Driftin’’. Like the rest of the album, this song reaffirms my belief that Tim was dealing with depression over a break-up or a stagnant relationship. It is a slow, dreamy song which features some very lovely guitar work. If I had to identify a low point on the record, I would say that this wonderful song is it.
The final track is ‘Nobody Walkin’’, which presents a musical change of pace. The slow moodiness of the rest of the album is broken by an upbeat, fast-paced groove which feels out of place in the context of the recording. As alien as it is, the song leaves the listener with much better feelings than that rest of the songs.
Lyrically, the song is also different in that it sees Tim take initiative by leaving his lover rather than wait to see whether or not she is going to leave him. This more proactive approach makes ‘Nobody Walkin’’ an appropriate, somewhat positive conclusion to the story of Lorca.
Much like the love spoken of in ‘Anonymous Proposition’, it seems Tim knew that the record would be doomed from the start. Larry Beckett, Tim’s early songwriting partner, said that he wanted to purposefully alienate his fans with his new direction. Tim was once quoted saying that Lorca is a record that “you can’t put… on at a party without stopping things; it doesn’t fit in.”
I would definitely have to agree with him. I’ve tried playing it for a group of friends and everyone in the room immediately stopped talking and started listening. It’s definitely a record that demands your attention.
For the time, there aren’t many albums to which you can compare Lorca. The 1970s weren’t a time when popular folk artists were incorporating avant-garde and jazz elements into their sound. Buckley’s use of the chromatic scale sets Lorca apart from the more conventional and melodic folk music which lived (and lives) as the norm. The most obvious contemporary of Lorca’s would be Nico’s ‘Desertshore’, but even that record doesn’t have the desolate and stark qualities of Lorca.
My opinion of Lorca, much like my opinion of Jeff, is the unpopular one. Most people I know prefer Starsailor. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail on that album; it’s a fantastic record and certainly deserves all of the acclaim it receives. The two albums receive comparisons quite often since they’re both products of his avant-garde period and they have some similar qualities.
However, I think it’s unfair to compare the two as they have many important differences that separate them more than their similarities unite them. First of all, Starsailor is a much more adventurous and genre shattering album. Tim dove even further into experimentation on that record and came up some very interesting and unique songs as he moved further and further from the folk norm and format. Lorca does not dive as fully into the uncertain waters of the unknown and holds more strongly to traditional folk music formats.
While I usually tend to favor weirder albums, Lorca is my favorite album by Buckley. Starsailor is a fascinating listen, but it lacks intimacy, whereas when I listen to Lorca, I feel like I’m getting a better look at what Tim was like during this point in his life. It has a very atmospheric quality to it that few other albums I’ve listened to are able to achieve, and for this reason alone, it is worth your time and effort to enjoy.