Releasing the Leaves is the new album by Ninebarrow and is the long-awaited follow-up to 2014’s award-winning debut, While the Blackthorn Burns. Dorset-based Jon Whitley (vocals, organ, ukulele, tenor, octave mandola, piano) and Jay LaBouchardiere (vocals, reed organ) continue their musical exploration of landscape, history and British folklore through a mixture of mainly self-penned compositions with a respectful tip of the hat to the folk tradition along the way.
‘The Pinner’ draws on an old story found in Dorset folklore, about a woman who devotes her life to making the perfect pin (brooch?) in the belief that, if she can achieve her aim, then her dearest wish will come true. Jon and Jay’s arrangement is wistful and dreamy with some lovely harmonies over Lee Cuff’s cello and makes a great opener.
Based on a true story about the abandoned Dorset village of Tyneham, ‘For a Time’ continues the thoughtful mood for its first part before Joe Limburn’s double bass and Luke Selby’s percussion join, adding pace and movement to the tale of a fictional encounter between a visitor to Tyneham and one of its former residents. This is a well-structured and evocative song with a subtle anti-war moral and one of the album’s highlights.
‘Lord Exmouth’ is Jon and Jay’s reworking of the traditional 17th century folk mainstay of nautical derring-do. The lyric is apparently based on a real-life sea battle, but the arrangement’s strength is its simplicity, spotlighting the duo’s harmony singing over some slow, sustained chords played on what sounds like a reed organ.
Originally commissioned for a Dorset Artsreach project intended to raise awareness of the rich archaeological heritage of the region, ‘To the Stones’ was inspired by a Neolithic chambered long barrow known as The Grey Mare and Her Colts, located on the South Dorset Ridgeway. A highly evocative, pared down arrangement conjures up mental images of misty mornings and sunrises over the valley below; a reminder of the continuity of human history and the importance of being grounded in our pasts as we face the challenges of the modern world. A lovely song and one of my favourites on the album.
The lilting ‘Weave Her a Garland’ lifts the mood as Jon and Jay are rejoined by Joe on an original musical setting of a lyric collected by the poet and author, Alfred Williams, in his book Folk Songs from the Upper Thames. As Jon and Jay point out, it’s a sweet song and stood out for them as, “unlike much of our material, no one died, no children were stolen, lovers weren’t separated and no castles were besieged!”
The traditional Back & Sides (Let your Back and Sides Go Bare) is given a suitably raucous arrangement with Luke’s steady kick drum keeping the reed organ and the duo’s harmonies on the straight and narrow. It’s a gently bucolic rendition which works well in the album’s setting, encouraging the listener to raise a glass of their favourite tipple – not that this listener needs any great encouragement! Cheers, lads!
‘Three Ravens’, or ‘Twa Corbies’ as it’s also often known, is perhaps one of traditional folk music’s most popular tunes and almost certainly one of the grimmest stories told. It’s been covered by many singers over the years; Jon and Jay’s reworking was inspired by Ewan MacColl and remains true to his version on The English and Scottish Popular Ballads: Vol 1 – Child Ballads. Sung unaccompanied with just a dash of reverb, it’s a powerful take on an evergreen favourite which shows off Jon and Jay’s singing to great effect.
The following ‘Blood on the Hillside’ continues the corvid-related theme; although about a murder of seven crows, lyrically it makes good use of one of the most popular rhymes about magpies to tell a gripping tale of otherworldly magic and shape-changing witches. Over a fluttering piano and restless reed organ, the duo’s vocal performance brings the story to life; Lee’s string parts are particularly effective in what is another of the album’s highlights.
Written as a companion to a song (‘Knightwood’) on Ninebarrow’s previous album, ‘Silent Prayer’ vividly portrays the fears and anxiety of a 17th century sailor caught in a storm far out to sea. The song’s understated arrangement gives it a real emotional power and I really hope that Jon and Jay write a third, concluding part to the story for the next album.
Continuing the nautical theme and offering a different perspective on separation, ‘Coming Home’ (written by Jon’s Dad, Bob Whitley) takes Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage of 1519 for its backdrop to imagine the range of emotions experienced by the wife of one of the sailors. From its sparse start (Jon and Jay’s vocals over an unadorned piano accompaniment) the arrangement builds gradually, with reed organ and strings ebbing and flowing before the song’s hopeful conclusion.
The closing ‘Dark Eyed Sailor’ rounds out not only the album but also the triptych of sailing-related songs. There have been many versions of this “broken token” ballad, but Jon and Jay drew their inspiration from a reworking by Olivia Chaney for an arrangement which shows off the duo’s harmonies to good effect in that rarest of folk songs: one with a happy ending!
Ninebarrow’s Releasing the Leaves is a fine follow-up to their debut: each of its eleven songs contains a wealth of detail and richness, showcasing Jon and Jay’s stunning harmony singing. It’s an intricately woven display of light and shade which is sure to become a firm favourite of every folk music fan, and deservedly so.
Review by: Helen Gregory
The album will be showcased on a spring UK tour beginning on the 26th March 2016 with a launch concert being held at Lighthouse Poole. Tour dates below: