Monday, February 10, 2014

Song #491 of 9999 - Poison & Wine by The Civil Wars

Song #491 of 9999

Title: Poison & Wine
Artist: The Civil Wars
Year: 2010
Album: Barton Hollow

I'm not really a "Best Of" guy. I couldn't tell you my top 10 favorite albums of 2010. Or 2011. Or any year, really. But I do know that The Civil Wars' Barton Hollow has spent (and still spends) an awful lot of time on my turntable. It's not a record I listen to intently—it's pretty easy to relegate to the background. In fact, to be honest, as I'm sitting here listening as closely as I ever have, I have to say Joy Williams is a pretty annoying singer. It's no wonder they don't get along.

But when they click and their voices blend, the results can be pretty sensational. They're like a polished (almost to the point of sterilization) version of Glen Hansard and Markéta Irglová (who I would most definitely pick in a knife fight between the two duos). And yet, I'm sold.

"Poison & Wine" relies on inverted pedal tones to create the soft dissonances that seep through the cracks created by the ticks and tocks of John Paul White's staccato guitar. What I mean is there are notes (Db & Ab in this case) that are sustained throughout the three-chord progression (Db-Ab-Gb) that are sometimes consonant and sometimes dissonant depending on which chords they interact with. In this case, the Db & Ab (heard most prominently in the piano) begin as chord tones with the tonic Db, but become dissonant when played over the dominant (Ab) and subdominant (Gb), like this (the red notes are the dissonances):

As you can see, the notes in the right hand almost never change, at least not until the last measure where the Db moves down by half-step to created a nice augmented 4th dissonance (labeled here as #11) against the bass. These dissonances are rendered even more harmless (and, by extension, more lovely) by the absence of thirds in these chords—notice how the left hand is made only of open fifths. And though I haven't depicted it in this graphic, the vocal melodies sung by Williams and White almost always end on an Eb, a dissonant sixth above the Gb in the bass of the final chord. It is this bundle of dissonances that fuels the slow burn of this beautiful song.


  1. Lovely song. I really dig the #11 on the vocal harmony (male) part on the word "bruise" that comes in staggered at 2:01 below the 13th (6th) (female). Very pretty moment.

    It is cool to see what you can milk out of 3 chords.