Harbottle & Jonas “Anna is a Dancer” (Independent, 2017)

A descending, modal chord progression plucked out on what sounds like a 12 string guitar, the twang of a string bent here and there – with the first few bars, any listener with a penchant for bluesy American roots music will be frothing at the mouth with excitement.  Surely, this must be one of those songs about Dust Bowl wanders from the ’20s or backwoods murderers living beyond the law. Nope… just 23 seconds and we discover that it’s a song about the dark, heather-laden hills of Northumberland (to be fair there is a clue in the song title) delivered by two proudly honest regional English accents to boot! Brilliant.

Regardless of some discussion around whether this, the second offering from Harbottle & Jonas, is or isn’t Americana, one thing that is not up for discussion is the fact that this is a superb album showcasing some indisputably refined and thoughtful songwriting. There is hardly a dull moment: the sea shanty My Boy Jack lists and reels away, deploying an armoury of fiddles, horns, accordion and whistles to deliver a joyful Bellowhead-esque racket; The North Sea Ground, a song which extols the chilly climate of Grimsby, veers between heart-stopping vocals and a battery of percussion. The quieter more reflective moments (Mother and Song for Jonas being superb examples) are equally arresting, developing from the simplest of beginnings into dense and detailed chamber-folk.

Be warned steadfast Americana enthusiasts: notwithstanding the odd ex-Anglo cultural signifier, this is a VERY English record.  But what are the prerequisites of Americana? A banjo here and a mandolin there, exquisite harmonies befitting of CSN , a sense of whimsical longing communicated through mournful chord changes… Is it that easy to define? Anyway, this record has all of those things… and much more.

Author: Owen Gillham

Banjo playing, guitar strumming, bearded folky with a special place in his heart for Americana, coffee and cake. Graduated from Bretton Hall many years ago with a degree in Contemporary Music and (he said, proudly) probably the only person on that course to have ever written a dissertation about country music!

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