In Europe and Latin America the accordion retains its allure and its status as an important folk instrument, a marker of heritage and custom that transcends picture-postcard cliché. Its wide geographical spread and the fact that it was historically favoured as a family instrument – particularly amongst travelling families – means that while its tunes often have their own distinct lineage there is nevertheless a certain amount of musical cross-pollination, sometimes of a pan-continental kind. This, in a way, makes the accordion a perfect folk instrument: it is universally inclusive and it is also tradition-centred.
But in the British Isles the accordion’s reputation has suffered unfairly in the last half-century or so. It is seen in some quarters as an anachronism. The preserve of morris dancers (another unfairly maligned group), narrowboat dwellers or drinkers of brown and mild. Of course, there are many excellent folk bands that use the accordion, but few give it centre stage. It is an instrument due a resurgence and in Hannah James and Tuulikki Bartosik it has found a worthy pair of champions.
While James is British, her musical partner is of Estonian and Swedish descent – a mixture of origins that chimes with their chosen instrument’s knack for ignoring borders. Chatterbox is their first album together, and it is instantly apparent that they have a shared vision: the reinvigoration of accordion music through a blend of the traditional and the experimental. Opener Mias Polska is a brisk dance of their own composition, immediately showcasing their interplay and talent for arrangement. The experimental side shows itself with a wordless vocal accompaniment towards the song’s conclusion.
The melancholy narrative of traditional New Forest folk song Lonesome Woods shows the pair’s playing at its most introspective, and is subtly fleshed out by producer Dylan Fowler’s precise acoustic guitar. It establishes the importance of the interaction between voice and music as well as that between the two accordions. Josefins Vaggvisa (Vaggvisa is the Swedish word for lullaby) strengthens this point. A Bartosik composition, it once again features a wordless vocal refrain, this time set to a slowly lilting musical backdrop full of air and fading light. Leksands Brudmarsch (I’m guessing a brudmarsch is a wedding march) is altogether more sombre, but it still glitters with impressive interplay, the slower pace only serving to emphasise the understanding between the two.
Chatterbox is dotted with traditional arrangements of Scandinavian folk dances and songs, the most impressive of which is probably Karelian. It forms a kind of centrepiece to the album: its Finnish vocal sections are at once wild and muted, while the accordions in the middle section throb and lilt eerily. It is an object lesson in how to get something new and unexpected from the most venerable of sources. Ellin Polkka is a much jauntier affair, almost reminiscent of Hungarian gypsy music. Finland and Estonia share a language group with Hungary so it would come as no surprise to learn that these countries’ musical histories also intersect.
Running through the album is a linked series of four improvisations recorded in the dripping wildness of a Welsh hillside cave. It is these pieces that serve as the biggest reminder of how different and exciting accordion music can be. In Pentatonic, for example, the musical scale found commonly in Nordic folk music is given a thrust of modernism by the repetition and layering of notes, contrasting with the ageless sounds of moving water and the almost tangible damp chill of the cave. The brief Calm (another Cave recording) takes us into weird and witchy territory, as if the acid folk revival had started in a pine wood on the edge of the Arctic Circle rather than somewhere in California.
Against expectations Chatterbox is one of the freshest and in its quiet way one of the most spectacular albums I have heard this year. Ranging from incantatory to reflective, it is always subtle, vital, and feminine in the most elementary sense of the word. Bartosik and James look to have created an entirely new platform for the accordion, but more importantly the have created a beautiful set of recordings.
Review by: Thomas Blake
Released 25 May 2015 via Rootbeat Records
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