Traditional folk for the 21st century, richly textured playing on fine songs.
“Lockdown albums” have become commonplace. Some are good, some seem more designed to while away the time. Very few have been genuinely great. ‘The Beacon’ is a big step forward from David Harbottle and Freya Jonas’ last album ‘The Sea is My Brother’. The addition of the fiddle and third voice of Annie Baylis adds a richness to their sound over their previous work.
The beacon of the title song is Ugborough Beacon an outcrop on the edge of Dartmoor. The sound of parts of this album is noticeably more modern, with the occasional touch of synth in the background. This shift in style highlights the quality of the songwriting. ‘Every Creature is a Book’ is inspired by the writing of a 13th century philosopher. Other songs have words drawn from poems, ‘Edith Cavell’ from the R.L. Binyon poem, and stories in ‘Whenever you see a Robin’. ‘Anam Cara’ starts with a poem about the delights of wild swimming.
While saying that there is a touch of modernity about ‘The Beacon’ the traditional folk roots that Harbottle and Jonas have embraced in the past remain strong throughout the album. ‘Black is the Colour’ is a traditional song from Scotland by way of the Appalachians, recorded by everyone from Rhiannon Giddens to The Smothers Brothers. Here it closes the album with an atmospheric arrangement set over a drone and Baylis’ Viola. The song conjures up the feel of a windswept Dartmoor and is the equal of any earlier version.
The instrumentation including Concertina, Harmonium, Banjo and Cittern, combine to produce a sound that is both traditional and current. The lockdown preoccupations with home and the passage of time reflected particularly in the songs ‘I Make a Nest’ which with ‘The Beacon’ itself is the best piece on the album, and ‘Shelter’, “my open arms await you”.
Their press calls ‘The Beacon’ “a collection of songs inspired by the difficult circumstances we all faced during the global pandemic of 2020.” Thoughtful words, and music rooted in tradition and the land yet entirely current, make this one of the best albums born in Lockdown.