HARBOTTLE & JONAS – The Beacon (Brook View Records BVR002)

The BeaconDavid and Freya have been busy during lockdown streaming a series of live Facebook performances from home, often of inspired cover versions, variously as a duo or with guests such as Reg Meuross, but they’ve still managed to find time to record The Beacon, their outstanding fifth full-length studio album, written in response to the pandemic and their first since becoming a trio with the addition of Annie Baylis on violin, accordion, viola and backing vocals. There’s also some hints of synth tickling way courtesy of producer Josh Best-Shaw.

Recorded in their living room, it’s titled after Ugborough Beacon, an ancient site that looms over South Brent on the edge of their village home on Dartmoor and draws on its traditional purpose of providing warning fires and shining a light of hope in dark times. It provides the album’s opener, David on lead and introducing a slightly more expansive musical palette with shades of progressive folk to the traditional foundations, shining the metaphorical light of love to bring us back together and out of the darkness.

Again tapping into the inspirational, set to the words of Robert Laurence Binyon’s poem and showcasing Annie’s violin, the duo’s voices combining in harmony for ‘Edith Cavell’, the British nurse who was executed for treason in WWI by the Germans for tending the wounded on both sides and helping allied troops escape from occupied Belgium, the song serving as a tribute to the sacrifices made by nurses on the NHS frontline.

Written and sung by Freya to David’s fingerpicked backing, ‘I Make A Nest’ is a light waltz inspired by the beauty of Autumn and, as the strings and percussion add their colours, the need to not just recover what we’ve lost but to build a better, simpler way of life. Given the avian resonances, it’s followed appropriately by ‘Whenever You See A Robin’,  another symbol of hope and new life, written and sung by David on lead with Freya on harmonium and inspired by stories told by Devon filmmaker Jake Cauty about his larger than life late father, Simon.

There’s further nature imagery in the musically upbeat ‘Every Creature Is A Book’ which, opening with a swelling violin line and sung by David, was inspired by the writing of   early 14th century German philosopher and mystic Meister Eckhart who declared “Every creature is a word of God and is a book about God“, the song essentially about reconnecting with your inner self and ridding yourself of ego.

Again written and sung by Freya, accompanied by piano with all voices blending harmonies and violin adding a warm, emotional sheen, recent single ‘Lights’ addresses the need for human interaction and connection and our sometimes conflicting physical and metaphysical aspects. The only number written by all three, Baylis contributing the tune, is ‘Anna Cara’, which, an Anglicisation of the Irish term, anamchara, or “soul friend”, begins with a drone-backed spoken poem, written about the mental and physical anticipation of a bout of wild river swimming although patently that opposition of the agony and the ecstasy concerns more than just diving into cold water.

Opening with a musical box-like guitar patterns and gently flowing violin, the most personal number on the album is ‘F.C. Jonas’, written by Freya for and inspired by her grandfather, Fred which, basically, asks what is the measure of a man “by years, by words or the lines on his hand?” but also speaks of cherishing the time we have.

Again taken inspiration from poetry, here the writing of the late John O’Donohue, an Irish author, priest, and Hegelian philosopher from County Clare (who, as it happens wrote a book titled ‘Anam Cara’ propounding Celtic spirituality), driven by Annie’s pulsing violin featuring cittern, and sung by David in traditional intoning notes, while ‘Shelter’ is a simple benediction about returning to the comfort of home after navigating the stormy seas of life. The album  ends on the sole traditional number, a take on ‘Black Is The Colour’ that, tinged with traces of Appalachian and Celtic folk,  places Freya’s strong and pure voice up front against a drone, piano and viola backdrop that is both earthy and ambient in its sonic landscape.

They go from strength to strength with every album, the fuller, more contemporary textures and flavours here building on the solid bedrock of musical and lyrical acumen they’ve forged over the years to, as with the beacon of the title, to shine as among the brightest and warmest lights in today’s folk sky.

Mike Davies

Artists’ website: www.harbottleandjonas.com

‘The Beacon’ – official video: