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Saturday, 22 December 2012

3. The Civil Wars : Barton Hollow

We’re counting down to Christmas Eve with the albums of the year. Come back tomorrow to see what’s next ...

You’ve seen it before on reality TV. Struggling solo acts are paired with each other for surprising success.

It could only happen on X Factor.

Well, no actually. That’s not strictly the case. And the result doesn’t have to be mainstream manufactured Cowell clone chart pop.

Pair two credible artists and you may just end up with incredible results.

Put singer-songwriters Joy Williams and John Paul White together and you get the hottest contender yet for album of the year. Because The Civil Wars’ debut set Barton Hollow isn’t just good, it’s spine-tingling drop dead gorgeous.

Both Williams and White were battle-worn troubadours winning rave reviews but going nowhere until they separately enrolled on a songwriting camp course.

“The courses are like blind dates,” says Williams. “They are 20 or so writers. You pick straws, they pair you up, and off you go to see if you can write songs together.”

The Californian choirgirl with a love of The Beach Boys and The Carpenters found herself in a room with the Alabama rocker who liked nothing more than to holler his favourite AC/DC rock anthems. “Let’s be honest,” admits White. “Neither of us wanted to do this, but we did. We drew straws and they put us in a room. It didn’t look promising - chalk and cheese.”

But some things are meant to be.

“The very first day we started singing together, it was like we’d been doing it all our lives, “ says Williams. “When we harmonised, we each knew instinctively where the other was going. It was magical.”

So is the Americana-fuelled album, which more than matches the magic worked by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’s Raising Sand.

From respectfully retro 20 Years to folk-flavoured Birds Of A Feather, the gentle harmonies are seamless. The likes of Girl With The Red Balloon and Falling will subtly seduce your senses.

When they step up the pace, the title track nods to post-Zeppelin Page & Plant, and a bunch of bonus covers include Michael Jackson’s Billie Jean and Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me To The End Of Love.

Built from blues, country and folk, you may not hear a better album this year.

Since writing this review, of course, Civil Wars have put everything on hold, citing “internal discord and irreconcilable differences of ambition”.

Let’s hope they resolve those differences soon.

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