Music to get lost in.
The first thing that should be said is that this is a truly beautiful album. It’s mystical and magical and it entices you in and beguiles you with its delicate melodies and clever songs. Honey & The Bear, Suffolk based husband and wife duo Jon and Lucy Hart, have that rare gift of making the music sound completely effortless, though you suspect a great deal of effort has gone into the intricate crafting of this album. It is something of a triumph, at least to these ears.
Another one of the many projects we hear of that was born out of lockdown, ‘Journey Through the Roke’ would seem to have started life as a songwriting exercise. Denied the opportunity to perform in live venues by the pandemic the couple, who originally met at a songwriting gathering, set themselves the challenge of writing at least one new song a week to include in their streamed gigs on Sunday evenings over the first lockdown period. It was their way of staying connected to their audience and a means of keeping that audience engaged with fresh material. It also reflects their re-discovery of the natural world around them. As for so many, getting out into nature has been one of the few rewards of the restrictions of the pandemic and the duo have used that opportunity to re-connect with their local area and to use that connection to fire their songwriting. The results are to be heard throughout this album.
Roke, apparently, is an old East Anglian term for the mist that rises above the marshlands and water meadows of this low-lying region and it is the ethereal quality of mist that drifts through so many of these songs – they’re like brief glimpses of another life, gathered as the mist clears, before it closes back in and the vision is lost. The album really just drips with atmosphere and the feeling of the landscape where these songs are set. Starting with opening track ‘3 Miles Out’ the tone of the album is established right from the start – the sound of the sea before we embark on a moving tale of the North Sea Flood of 1953 which devastated the eastern coast – Suffolk resident Frank Upcraft lost his boat, the “Ivy” while trying to help his elderly neighbours. It’s an arresting tale beautifully told and gets the album off to a strong start but, truth be told, there’s really not a weak track on the album though, after repeated listens, and I have listened to this a lot, some tracks stand out a little more than others. ‘Buried In Ivy’, the second track on the album, can be found on YouTube with a beautiful animated video to illustrate it. It’s a song about sustainability and the effect of human habitation on our planet, the sometimes invasive, choking growth of ivy representing the strangling of the planet with pollution and waste disposal. Their appreciation of the natural world is also celebrated on another stand-out track, ‘Life on Earth’, apparently written in appreciation of Sir David Attenborough’s work over the years in bringing the natural world to our TV screens. One of the more upbeat tracks on the album it’s driven by some nice banjo playing and the duo’s faultless harmonies, with some very good whistle work from Toby Shaer as the song progresses. Another prominent track, ‘Sweet Honey’ has a nice, down-home country blues feel about it but the standout track, for me, is the incredibly haunting ‘Hungry Sea’ that really does get its hooks into you. Building slowly from a simple voice and guitar start it is a captivating song and the mournful sound of a single cello really piles on the melancholy feel within a truly lovely minor-key melody – it is exquisite. Equally fascinating is the story behind it, as it takes its inspiration from the life of Suffolk resident Violet Jessop, a ship’s nurse who survived no less than three ocean liner disasters – the Olympic in 1911, the Titanic one year later and, in 1916 the Titanic’s sister ship, Britannic!
Throughout the album, the quality of the musicianship is first-rate. Jon and Lucy are both multi-instrumentalists of the highest order but, of course, they only have one set of hands each! Their four hands are suitably augmented by The Lost Boys (of Sam Kelly and The Lost Boys) – the previously mentioned Toby Shaer on whistle, flute, harmonium, double bass, cittern and fiddle, Graham Coe is the excellent cello player, Archie Churchill-Moss on melodeon and Evan Carson on bodhran, drums, and percussion. The duo produced the album themselves and Lucy Hart even designed the artwork for the cover – which, itself, is stunning and wouldn’t look out of place on a gallery wall! They are quite a scarily talented pair and it’s increasingly hard to believe that this is only their second album. They must be destined for a long and very successful career.
That’s the gushing over and done with, now for the “buts”. There aren’t many, to be fair, it is every bit as good an album as indicated by the review but there are a couple of niggles. Probably the main one is that, with the best will in the world, you couldn’t describe this as an Americana album and it will lack the broader appeal of the genre. There are a couple of nods in the vague direction of our American cousins, such as the previously mentioned ‘Sweet Honey’, but this album really falls firmly in the contemporary English Folk category. It won’t appeal to those who like a harder sound, as is often the case with Americana, though it should have some appeal to those who appreciate good musicianship and more folk-oriented artists such as Sarah Jarosz and/or Alison Krauss.
The only cover track on the album is a version of the old song ‘My Lagan Love’, based on the traditional Irish air, (with lyrics attributed to Belfast-born folk archivist Joseph Campbell). It’s a song that has been covered many, many times and, while Honey and the Bear do a very credible version, does the world really need another cover of this song? Of course, it’s their album and they can include what they like but, if they were going to include a cover, something more left-field would’ve added interest. Finally, I think the duo need to think more about how they balance out the vocal sound. Lucy Hart has a great voice, very tuneful and full of character. Similarly, Jon Hart also sings well and his harmonies with Lucy are very good but, over the course of twelve songs, their standard approach of Lucy taking the lead and Jon harmonising around it starts to become a little anodyne. It’s not a big deal and it doesn’t detract from the songs in any way but I started to feel that, maybe, it might be nice to hear Jon’s voice more to the fore occasionally. It’s probably not a major problem at this stage in their career; they’re building a sound and an impressive identity as a unit but, long-term, it could become a limiting factor.
These minor niggles aside, this is an album to confidently recommend to anyone who likes good music, regardless of their preferred genre. It’s a fair prediction that we’ll be hearing a lot more from Honey & The Bear.