David Harbottle and Freya Jonas are a young folk duo based in Totnes, Devon. They are already causing something of a stir having received plaudits from folk luminaries such as Seth Lakeman, Rod Clements, Declan Sinnott and Jon Boden plus important radio support from BBC Introducing. The accompanying biography describes the duo as 'hardworking songsmiths that place and emphasis on musical independence, originality and breathe new life into traditional English folk songs'.
All of the ten songs on 'We Shall Overcome' are credited to the duo with David Harbottle on acoustic guitar and vocals and Freya Jonas, concertina and vocals. Additional musicians add trumpet, oboe, strings and vocals across the different tracks. However, crediting all ten songs to the duo is a little misleading as their versions of more traditional songs such as 'Faithful Sailor Boy' and 'Bold General Wolfe' are to be found here as well, albeit considerably changed. I think a little more clarity in the sleeve notes would be helpful.
Opening song, 'The Wind It Blows' has a deep, resonant guitar part before Freya's vocal enters singing sweetly over the track. However, at about thirty seconds, things suddenly shift up several gears and a band comes crashing in from nowhere, all drums, electric guitar and harmony vocals. I am not sure who is playing the drums, as I cannot see anyone credited, but it sounds great! This may be a somewhat lazy comparison, but it all reminded me of early Fairport Convention in their 'Folk Rock' heyday. Not just with the instrumentation, but the lovely melding of Freya and David's voices.
Track two 'Sonny' immediately rings the changes and is all sweeping, orchestrated violins and harmony vocals. This song is cinematic in its scope and tone it is easily imagined nestling in the film score of some classy, Italian sub titled film.
'Edith Cavell' brings us back into more obvious folk territory with their telling of this British nurse's story and her service to soldiers on both sides of the conflict in the First World War. 'She faced them gentle and bold' is a particularly lovely refrain in the song.
The next two tracks, their versions of 'Faithful Sailor Boy' and 'Bold General Wolfe' continue the historical theme and are both performed impressively. They are almost unrecognisable from previous versions but still maintain a strong sense of tradition.
There are also a couple of breezy instrumentals 'Love Is An Open Door' and 'Pull Me Backwards' that are both in and out at under one minute thirty seconds respectively.
The rest of the album maintains this high standard and 'Last Man Standing' is a suitably strong ending to the album being a courtly, stately song that builds powerfully with its 'we shall overcome' refrain.
Whilst each song here stands on its own merits, as an album it lags just a little in the middle section and in terms of dynamics might have benefited from something more punchy sitting in there. The album is not long and with two short instrumentals as well it could have easily accommodated another song, but this is just a minor quibble.
Harbottle & Jonas have, I think, forged quite a unique sound for themselves managing to convey both a contemporary and traditional sensibility. This ensures they are not just slavishly copying or retelling old tales as this can sometimes seem a little disingenuous, particularly when performed by younger acts. Instead, they are adding to and evolving creatively and at times with the jangly guitars sounded almost 'indie'. I imagine this edgy feel to their music in part explains the support of BBC Introducing as they are not normally given to promoting folk music!
This is a very enjoyable record, well played and beautifully arranged and orchestrated. What also sets this music apart is the quality of the duos vocals. Individually they both have fine voices, but together something rather lovely happens and the result is really quite moving.
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