For contemporary musicians, working in the folk idiom often involves navigating a succession of forks in the road: new or old, now or then, here or there, tradition or innovation. With While the Blackthorn Burns, Ninebarrow have carved a melodic map across the English landscape, offering up a collection of catchy songs honed and homed in landscapes from Dorset to the Lake District. From the rich vocal harmonies and shifting textures of ‘The Sea’ (Hengistbury Head, Dorset) to the mesmeric, almost ritual incantations of ‘Summer Fires’ (Castlerigg Stone Circle, Keswick), these are up to date songs echoing with the voices of singers past. It’s hard not to hear Peter Bellamy singing Kipling’s ‘A Smuggler’s Song’ when the lyrics of ‘Hawkhurst’ lead the listener to the smugglers’ caves of Warbarrow Bay (‘If you see them on their midnight race / Remember not a single face / Tonight!’) but it sounds fresh nonetheless.
Traditional themes are re-worked, leaving songs lyrically and melodically at home in the tradition, but suffused with contemporary sentiment. The Boxing Day hunting of the wren in ‘Winter King’ takes the familiar tale of songs such as ‘The Cutty Wren’ and twists it, hoping for the escape of the bird; there may be less bloodshed, but it’s no less a full-blooded. Similarly, ‘The Weeds’, which supplements the usual fretted string playing with a driving, morris-like tune on squeeze box, is reminiscent of the traditional ‘John Barleycorn’, layering metaphors of the turning of the seasons and the working of the land. As the protagonist learns, belatedly, his idyllic life was held together by the woman of his dreams; on letting her go, he watches the land run to seed and weeds overrun his home. As in the best folk songs, the lines between tale and parable, now and then, are difficult to draw. The gently melodic ‘She Walks on Alone’, however, turns towards the personal rather than the traditional, yet remains in keeping, skilfully and stylishly, with the rest of the album.
An attractively illustrated songbook accompanies the release (available online), which shares the stories behind the songs, and photographs of the places that have shaped both music and musicians. As the duo write, ‘The songs alone can only convey so much of the tales we want to tell and we quickly decided that we’d like to be able to share the rest with people who were interested in the places and history contained in our songs.’ The songs stand alone, solid without these stories, but in the telling of them gain a rootedness that moves them beyond being pastiche.
Review by: Stacey Sewell
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Photo Credit: Jo Elkington