Sunday, 16 March 2014

NINEBARROW

CD Review

While The Blackthorn Burns

It's a magical opening on the first track of this Ninebarrow album with the picking of the strings which reminds of an extended version of the intro to Simon & Garfunkel's Sound of Silence. 

Jay Labouchardiere and Jon Whitley
And the similarity doesn't stop there, the voices of Dorset duo Jon Whitley and Jay Labouchardiere which come in on The Sea, are very evocative of S&G's early folkier albums.
While there are worse acts to be compared to, the two Js definitely have their own distinct sound so the analogy can't be stretched too far but the first track sets the tone for the rest of the album and it's a pretty cool tone.
This whole album is such a good listen and will evoke a wide variety of emotions in myriad listeners. Don't be too surprised to find some of the tracks on arty adverts in the not too distant future.
When it comes to playing instruments too it seems less is more, the picking and playing whether it be  the mandola or ukulele  is so precise there isn't a crumb of sound wasted. Right from the off the two Js layer their voices to create a rich musical canvass for The Sea which was inspired by the remains of a Roman fort in the Lake District.
Summer Fires is a lighter subject matter and tune and once again the minimal use of the strings and the duo's voices flicking in and out of the verses mimic both the flames and vision of people lighting fires and leaping across the flames in celebration of events in the natural calendar. They mix evocative lyrics such as "As the flames they move in sprightly dance, We’ll hold back Winter’s slow advance." with the voices growing higher and stronger to match the imaginary licks of fire.
This is followed by Knightwood which is a lovely intricate tale of nature and absent love but is again told in a very simple almost rustic way with the duo's voices daubing in the emotions wherever it is most effective.
The organic nature of these songs is really what folk music is all about. The tunes are rooted and inspired by the landscape, legends and histories of, the region the Js call home, but also this green and sceptred isle. The Siege is a wonderful narrative inspired by Corfe Castle and their strong and clear voices do justice to the story they have created around the mythical events.
The CD artwork was designed by Jon's sister Sarah
About the only thing The Weeds is missing is the sound of bells and if they don't Morris dance to this while playing live then they are selling the audience short. The wonderfully traditional skipping of the music and the slightly playful sound of their voices almost undermine the sadness of the tale of lost love and livelihood with lyrics such as "I’ve boarded the windows and given the deeds,to the brambles, the creepers, The Weeds."
Jay's granny gets credit for Birdsong which is a simple track cribbed from sheet music she once owned. Like most of the album the vision is in the lyrics which are coloured by the sparse and excellently employed music which they do so well, in this instance to create their idyll of walking through the New Forest.
Shadows is the duo's unadorned voices and while individually they sound smooth, light and extremely clear the separation on this track is a little too harsh, almost as if the notes have argued and each is working too hard to keep their end up blatantly refusing to have anything to do with the others. So instead of getting a blended harmony you get two strands of two very good voices and ne'er the twain shall meet.
At the risk of sounding repetitive, and this is in no way a criticism, the guitar intro on Mother! and indeed the whole track, is again very reminiscent of S&G and you almost stop for a second and think this is the long lost track from The Graduate (apologies to all you conspiracy theorists there is no such thing). But this is a lovely construction with the warmth of the cello holding up the lighter strand of the mandola which are then woven together by the two Js' voices and like all the songs on the album it is part of a mini-library of folklore, fantastic tales, mystery and mischief.
Let it be hereby noted, there are not enough songs about smuggling about, so thankfully they include one with Hawkhurst, which although, again, has that great story in the lyrics is let down a little by the tune. Not that the music is not perfectly executed but it just seems to belong to another song and another set of words. It has a touch of Seth Lakeman about it in the beat and strength of the strumming but doesn't really seem to evoke barrels of illicit booze, coves, ships and ne'er-do-wells trying to outsmart the customs.
By their own admission they don't write personal songs, thankfully they did on this occasion and if this is an example of what they can produce perhaps they ought to consider doing it a little more. She Walks On Alone is a fantastic ballad, emotionally charged by the simplicity of the piano and once again the razor sharp lyrics. You just know it's one of those songs that listeners will just sit there in silence until the last ounce of sound fades out of the final note.
Ninebarrow
There is more than a touch of Donovan in the opening of Winter King which is another example of how little they need to do to make something so good, this is not to diminish all the effort they have put into these songs, but they make them sound like their construction is stripped down to the barest bones and this seemingly minimalist approach works so well and is so refreshing, it allows you enjoy every single element of the tracks.
Bold Sir Rylas is a great song to end an album and is such an animated song that however, you feel about the rest of the tracks you should leave on a high unless of course you are squeamish about the dark and dreadful story it tells in which case it may pay you to skip back to the beginning.
It does sound like something Spiers & Boden have done which is hardly surprising when you consider they were singing it when the Js first heard and it does sound a little like a tribute to the Bellowhead duo but it's a rip-roaring song and they do it justice so you can forgive them.
While The Blackthorn Burns is unashamedly a folk album and it's all the better for being so. It has everything a good folk collection should have, organic stories, dark tales, mysteries, sorrow, rebellion and misery but more than that is also has two wonderful singers and musicians who can anchor it just enough into the modern day to make both ends of the folkie scale take notice.

While The Blackthorn Burns will be officially launched at The Lighthouse, Poole on April 26. Doors open 7pm and the show starts at 8pm. Tickets are £7 via www.lighthousepoole.co.uk or on 0844 406866.