Ninebarrow - While the Blackthorn Burns

2014 studio album

While the Blackthorn Burns - Ninebarrow

the bright young folk review

Ninebarrow are two young men from Dorset who come fresh from winning the 2013 Larmer Tree Breakthrough Music Award. Jon Whitely and Jay Labouchardiere have created an intriguing album of songs inspired by the land and history of England.

Jon Whitely is a multi-instrumentalist, playing ukulele, tenor mandola, harmonium and piano. What makes this album special is the close harmony singing of Jay and Jon which lifts these songs out of the ordinary to, sometimes, stunning effect.

The strong opening track, The Sea, takes its inspiration from an old Roman fort at the top of Hard Knott Fell in the Lake District. Against a background of rippling ukulele the song describes the feelings of the men garrisoned there, at the furthest outpost of the Roman Empire. The subtle cello accompaniment (by fellow Dorset musician, Lee Cuff) gives the song a mournful, plaintive air.

Two songs are set much closer to home, in Corfe Village, Dorset (not far from Nine Barrow Downs from where the group get their name). Summer Fires describes the midsummer ritual of lighting bonfires and jumping over them for good luck and brings to mind a memorable scene from the film, The Wicker Man.

Siege tells the story of Lady Bankes, a royalist who defended Corfe Castle from a three-year siege during the English Civil War. The chorus to this song is particularly strong and must go down a treat live.

One of the most striking songs of the set is the shortest. Sung a capella, Shadows simply describes the oncoming night as seen from a hill in the Lake District. The song’s melody is adapted from a lovely Icelandic folk tune, Vísur Vatnsenda-Rósu, which has also been covered by Björk.

Many of the songs make an explicit connection to the land and the people living on it. The Weeds, for example, talks about how a house and garden goes to seed after a man, at the behest of his family, sends the woman of his dreams away. This is played, on the harmonium, as a chirpy waltz.

A more personal note is introduced in She Walks on Alone which is about a woman who knows that her boyfriend, who says he loves her, is never going to call. The piano accompaniment on this track is particularly haunting.

The album finishes with that popular traditional song of pigs and death, Bold Sir Rylas. This is a gutsy reading, inspired by the singing of Spiers and Boden, but taking its own path. It’s a genuine crowd pleaser.

So, twelve songs later, is there anything wrong with this album? Well, not much. Perhaps the vocals could be a little clearer in places and some of the tracks suffer slightly from too much repetition in the choruses, but this is to quibble.

Ninebarrow have produced a strong set of songs rooted in both the landscape and the folk song tradition. It is an album that repays repeated listening and comes with a warm recommendation.

Stephen Witkowski

Self-released on 26th April 2014.

1. The Sea
2. Summer Fires
3. Knightwood
4. Siege
5. The Weeds
6. Birdsong
7. Shadows
8. Mother
9. Hawkhurst
10. She Walks on Alone
11. Winter King
12. Bold Sir Rylas

Ninebarrow discography