Ninebarrow- “A Pocket Full of Acorns” Review

Timely, persistent and quiet. The natural world continues to spill forth from Ninebarrow’s fourth album, in all the best ways.

Those quiet boys of folk, Ninebarrow, have been keeping themselves busy during the lockdown.

Well, when we say quiet, we acknowledge that ever since their debut album they have been anything but; with recognition from the BBC2 Folk Awards and numerous magazine and online publications, becoming a pillar of Lyme Folk Festival as well as their books and commissions they have been involved in. But then “quiet” is all relative and you can still be softly spoken while still working hard. 

Ninebarrow, photographed in Dorset, October 2020 by Greg Funnell.

In these strange times the duo of Jon Whitley and Jay Labouchardiere have been, in fact, quietly working on their latest folk album “A Pocket Full of Acorns”. This disc looks to the natural world by specifically relishing in the human experience of it. One of the few pleasures that has not been totally off-limits during the lockdown here in the UK is the great outdoors; it appears that the nation’s love of the countryside has been reignited somewhat as it becomes the go-to meeting space. With this in mind, Ninebarrow should be in a good position as the British countryside serves as the primary inspiration for their brand of folk, it has been their muse from the very beginning and it is what they are good at singing about. 

With “A pocket full of acorns” (their fourth album) there might be a temptation to wonder where Ninebarrow has left to go with their brand of softly spoken, nature-infused folk which has served them well up to this point. Well, it seems that whilst their newest pastures are not far from the homestead we see once again that their conviction, appreciation of a simple message, and crystal clear vocals win the day against possible dissenters. To understand we could consider a bottle of olive oil. It is a hugely popular item in a kitchen and is quite ubiquitous as so much cooking requires it. For the oil to be special and stand out it has to excel in quality against its competitors. Luckily, if Ninebarrow’s combined duo vocals are like olive oil, then we can safely say that this album is beyond extra virgin.  

In exploring the roots of this work, let us now turn to the tracks.

The namesake of the album, “A pocketful of acorns” is a good place to start. The song is directly inspired by a vice Admiral in the Napoleonic times who considered the need for trees for the future of the Navy and the Country, and as a result, always carried some in his hands as he walked. When you listen, there is this pensive, personal consideration of responsibility that comes through the song. On top of this, the simple reigns supreme as the listener re-experiences the wonder of holding a potential natural wonder in their hands, ready to unfurl upwards. As such we consider actions we might take to help preserve the future. The piano is like an old wooden emissary of the woods swaying and creaking as the duo lay down this sympathetic and spiritual track and tt is, in our opinion, as close to anything they have produced that represents the core message intention and purpose Ninebarrow possess as songwriters. For additional kudos, as a part of their album release the duo are embarking on the task of planting 1000 native English trees and several shrubs which is intended to cover the carbon footprint for them touring the album. They are (so to speak) putting their money where their mouth is here, and it is a credit to their message.

Ninebarrow, photographed in Dorset, October 2020 by Greg Funnell.

Another track which exemplifies the light-touch of the album is “Nestledown”. At their most understated, the duo gently speak as if their song is the secretive sounds of the Earth’s hum, the patter and scrape of the earthworm with their guidance to the seedlings looking to grow and thrive, “there’s warmth in the air.. But nestle down deep.” Taking inspiration from the local Dartford Warbler (who braves the British cold and doesn’t migrate) and a desire to “looking forward to longer days” it is almost trance-like, taking the simple concepts of light and heat and hits the primal feels. It allows us to imagine we are of nature seeking the simple clarity of nature’s desires away from the complexities of social constructs that are divorced from nature. Instinctive and atmospheric, it is another wonder added to the disc.

“You Who Wander” is everything that is the joy of the different seasons. A bouncy rendition of the English tune “Speed the Plough” with an added exuberant splash of percussion. It is great in it’s vocal observations of those small joys such as “the glint of the Winter and the promise of Spring”. A song about rambling, it is somewhat of a prayer for walkers to have a fair day and to put your best foot forward, maybe for all sorts of things in life. It is like a feast for the optimist and a small, warm hug for those listeners who are under the weather.   

One feeling the audience might express on a cursory listening is that Ninebarrow take few diversions from enjoying the countryside. This isn’t strictly speaking true though as further attention shows us they do deviate from their theme here and there. If something else takes your fancy there is the cover of Patrick Wolf’s “Teignmouth” about a train journey from London to Cornwall with the weary character of the song glimpsing half-truths in his window’s reflection (and the closest you might hear Ninebarrow being sombre). There is also the exceptionally well known song of “Hey John Barleycorn” that in it’s barley goodness is like a smooth amber ale as it reaches the back of your throat. Barley is natural but the feeling has always seemed to us to be about nature personified instead of the observed murmurations in the skies. The strongest diversion from the nature theme however has to go to track 3, “Under the Fence”. Inspired by a documentary of the detainment camps in Calais, the song is a pretty strong blow to the heart. Quite haunting, but not too bleak in delivery,“But the girl still dreams of friends and school. But life is harsh and fate is cruel”, it reminds somewhat of Tori Amos’ “Past the Mission”. It’s latter piano presence is noticeably penetrating and a reminder that Ninebarrow can sing folk songs outright, or they can adapt them to a more contemporary singer-songwriter vibe without much difficulty. Either way it is an engaging number, a flip of expectations and probably one of the best songs on the disc.  

Ninebarrow, photographed in Dorset, October 2020 by Greg Funnell.

So we come to the summary.

In its dedication to warm, clear lyrics and message the album’s peacefulness goes for the jugular. Ninebarrow continue to expand their catalogue of nature folk in a way which encapsulates the “everyman” enjoyment and quietness of their surroundings. They are not the tsunami that rages upon the land, they are the ripple of a koi biting the surface of the water or a hummingbird effortlessly hovering in place. The mellow sound of Ninebarrow is quite fetching, the pair continue to write a good selection of songs from their source material and this album has the potential to transport their message far and wide. We recommend a purchase for that drive down the Dorset coast, the Peak District or any other part of nature’s gift to open the mind a little to the experience.

As often is the case, “A Pocketful of Acorns” is available from several stockists, though we always recommend purchasing from the artist directly if possible. 

In this instance please go to https://www.ninebarrow.co.uk/shopping

If you want a further taster of the album, please watch the below video.

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