Hampshire & Foat describe The Honeybear as a “children fairytale book concept album,” with each song describing/soundtracking a chapter in the titular (and imaginary) children’s book. Given how trite and terrible children’s entertainment can often be, you’d be forgiven for assuming that The Honeybear is full of cutesy music and saccharine arrangements. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
Recorded during “idyllic summer evenings” on the Isle of Wight by Warren Hampshire (The Bees) and jazz pianist Greg Foat, The Honeybear is a beguiling album that draws from British folk, ambient music, and even the eeriness found in the Ghost Box label’s haunted discography. Simply put, there’s nothing “cute” about this album as it weaves darker musical passages through otherwise pleasant, pastoral arrangements.
Given the album’s conceit, it’s tempting to imagine the sort of storylines that’d best accompany Hampshire & Foat’s compositions. The gentle acoustic guitar, ghostly flutes, and strings on “Call of the Forest” suggest a summoning to a nocturnal ceremony attended by the titular Honeybear and his fellow woodland creatures. Later, “Winter Bound“ ‘s funereal electronics and somber string arrangements (reminiscent of Hilmar Örn Hilmarsson’s Children of Nature soundtrack) imply darker times for Mr. Honeybear and his friends as colder weather sets in.
Of course, seeing as how our main character is a Honeybear, bees need to make an appearance, and so they do on “The Hive,” courtesy of the duo’s field recordings. But those slowly blend into swarming kosmische electronics that verge on oppressive, as if the hive is gathering itself to defend against any honey-stealing interlopers. Fortunately, the next song is the bucolic “Honey Dreams,” with lovely strings and trilling woodwinds evoking a sense of contentment and fulfillment.
The album closes with “Rain Clouds” and “Honey For a Penny.” The former’s strings and synthesizers perfectly capture the ominous-yet-exhilarating sense of watching storm clouds gather and darken on the horizon. The latter is the album’s jauntiest song, as oboe and flute dance amidst acoustic guitar and strings, bringing the Honeybear’s adventures to a satisfied end while implying more to come.
Hampshire & Foat have created a tiny wonder with The Honeybear, an enchanting little album that takes the “childrens book” conceit and infuses it with a true and otherworldly sense of beauty. In other words, The Honeybear’s music may be child-like in its imaginative-ness, but it’s never childish.