Named for Nine Barrow Down in Dorset’s Purbeck hills, joined by Lee MacKenzie on cello, Nizlopi’s double bassist John Parker and both producer Mark Tucker and Evan Carson on percussion, Jon Whitley and Jay LaBouchardiere return with their fourth album, A Pocket Full of Acorns, a collection of primarily original material lyrics inspired by the poet William Barnes speckled with arrangements of traditional songs and a particularly striking cover.
It opens with the reflective home thoughts of ‘Come January’, a portrait of a Dorset winter inspired by returning from university to find the trees stripped bare of leaves by an intense and blustery cold snap. This is followed by ‘Nestledown’, another number about the turning of the seasons, a pastoral waltz with LaBouchardiere on lead inspired by the resilience of the non-migratory Dartford Warbler that haunts the heathlands to weather the winter until spring returns.
By way of a thematic detour, taking its inspiration from ‘Cold, Haily, Windy Night’ (which is referenced in the lyrics), ‘Under The Fence’, anchored by brooding reed organ and shifting piano tones, takes a topical note in addressing the plight of refugees in camps across Europe, inspired by a documentary about one such in Calais and the paradoxical sight of a young girl carefree amid the squalor.
The first number directly inspired by Barnes is ‘Zunshine In The Winter’, based in his dialect poem ‘Zunsheen In The Winter’, its description of the season serving as a metaphor for growing old and memories of both literal and metaphorical sunnier days, etched out here to a simple, soothingly meditative piano and cello coloured melody.
One of only two actual traditional songs, sung unaccompanied save for reed organ drone, ‘Hey, John Barleycorn’ will be well-familiar, the version here clearly inviting refrain singalongs once they get back to the live circuit. Then comes the sparsely arranged centrepiece title track, inspired by the true story of Vice-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood, the Newcastle-upon-Tyne born second in command to Lord Nelson at Trafalgar. According to reports, fearful of there being insufficient timber to maintain the navy, he carried with him a pocket full of acorns, planting them as he went on his rambles. It goes without saying that the song speaks of the ecological need to secure the future for the generations that follow, to which end the duo were given a 3-acre field to plant up as a future forest.
As such, it sits appropriately alongside ‘Cry Unity’, another that had its origins in Barnes’s poetry, specifically ‘The Dorset Rifleman’s Song’, which, while set to a strident military percussive rhythm, transforms the original’s call to arms to protect against the country’s foes into one for global coming together in the case of friendship and a home for all.
The sole cover is Patrick Wolf’s ‘Teignmouth’, a song about spiritual healing through nature, Whitley’s lovely piano arrangement here based on the 2012 acoustic version rather than the cacophonic avant folktronica original.
Avowed walkers, the refrain set to the tune of ‘Speed The Plough’, ‘You Who Wander’ is a jaunty benediction to the joy of walking the landscape and all those who amble, ramble, scramble and stroll. And from land to sea, the album ending with two nautical numbers, firstly Whitley singing unaccompanied the mortality-tinged traditional ‘Farewell Shanty’ also known as ‘Padstow’s Shanty’ and a staple show closer, and, finally, hauntingly captured with just voice and piano, ‘Sailors All’ by north-east singer-songwriter Ewen Carruthers, a reminder that we are all in the same boat on life’s oceans, braving the seas and storm until we find safe harbour.
As ever accompanied by a full colour illustrated songbook of photos, notes and lyrics, as befits the title, from the seeds they have planted they have grown a mighty oak of an album.
Artists’ website: www.ninebarrow.co.uk
Album trailer video: