Harbottle & Jonas : The Sea is My Brother22.02.19 : Brook View Records
The Sea is My Brother is the fourth album from Totnes based duo David Harbottle and Freya Jonas. The album takes its name from Jack Kerouac's 'lost' first novel, which was belatedly published in 2011, forty years after the author died (and the delay was no mistake - Kerouac himself described the book, written when he was twenty and still developing as a writer, as "a crock (of sh*t) as literature").
The title is a good fit for a collection of songs that all have a maritime connection - but the album itself, unlike Kerouac's just-post-juvenilia, is a mature testament to Harbottle & Jonas' craft; following 2017's well-received Anna is a Dancer, through all eleven tracks (nine self-penned) The Sea is My Brother has an end-to-end lilting charm and grace.
The narrative of the first track - a moving cover of Mike Silver's arrangement of Ewen Carruthers' mournful Was it You? - is located on Antarctic ice in 1912, as Captain Scott's last thoughts are imagined. It sets a standard (and subject year) that is matched by the following composition, Fr. Thomas Byles, which begins with a long harmonium drone before the duo's melancholy harmonies sketch out the story of a priest on the Titanic who gave up his seat on a lifeboat, to stay on board and minister to the soon-to-be drowned.
Look closely for your bearings, and eventually four further tracks emerge as landmarks in an otherwise even set.
First, the music of Hall Sands shuffles around insistently to frame the words of former Poet Laureate John Masefield, written to commemorate a fishing community lost to the sea, after its shingle was dredged to extend the dockyard at Plymouth - it is a radiant combination.
Lost to the Sea is an elegant, affecting lament for the Chinese cockle pickers who died at Morecambe Bay in 2004, which showcases Harbottle's honed ability to write a contemporary folk song.
In contrast Jonas' upbeat Headscarf Revolutionaries is celebratory - marking fisheries worker Lillian Bilocca's successful industrial safety campaign after three Hull trawlers sank in three weeks in 1968, taking 58 lives. Bilocca was blacklisted for her efforts, threatened for speaking out about a male preserve ("Against the thundering voices of men"), and never worked in the industry again - the lyrics honour her struggle and triumph.
Finally, in the album's heart-rending closing minutes, the last, slow paced and elegiac song, Saved Alone, portrays the story of Anna Spafford, who lost all of her four daughters when shipwrecked. The title reflects the opening words of the simple telegram she sent to her husband on arriving in port after being rescued; "Saved alone. What shall I do?". The song does the tragedy justice.
The duo were augmented for the album's recording sessions by the strings of Mark Nesbitt (violin), Jude Wright (cello/mandolin) and Daniel Cleave (double bass/mandola), with extra joie de vivre (in The Saucy Sailor at least) from trumpeter Andy Tyner; drummer Adam Brackley added solid underpinning rhythms, Jenny Jonas and Kris Lannen provided additional vocals, with the former's oboe also employed.
The presence of these cohorts was undoubtedly vital in adding the final texture and life to the songs, but, whoever was in the room, the key consistent characteristic the music has is an unhidden joy imprinted in its making. This is shared with the listener in the alchemy of harmonising voices creating real, deeply felt moments of euphoria and paradoxically in the long, poignant sadnesses of the more tragic stories. The Sea is My Brother is a great, enthralling folk album - full of songs and tales yearning to be heard on the road.
HARBOTTLE & JONAS I Was it You?