Northumbrians The Unthanks are the eponymous sisters Rachel and Becky, Rachel’s husband and band mate Adrian McNally, Niopha Keegan and Chris Price. They make a form of folk music that is not of the recently fashionable “nu” variety, yet still manages to convey a sense of identity and character that is more of a rarity in purist, traditional circles.
Their second album The Bairns was Mercury Prize-nominated in 2008 (with billing as Rachel Unthank & The Winterset), and justly so. Last is their fourth release, and earns its place right up there with their remarkable body of work to date.
The band have always been noted for the perceptive and intelligent way in which they mix traditional songs with original compositions and some choice covers. Here, they give us versions of Tom Waits‘ No One Knows I’m Gone, King Crimson‘s Starless, and Give Away Your Heart, a track by little-known British songwriter Jon Redfern.
As a general rule of thumb though, these are musicians at their most distinctive and satisfying at the more traditional edges of their work. So, album highlights include tracks like The Gallowgate Lad, whose “canny lass” narrator tells of her lover Jack, once a wastrel and now gone away to war. The music is meticulous, intricate and intelligent, with pianos fluttering over brass and strings: the lovely melody and arrangements a beautiful complement to the drawn-out, almost breathy vocals. Also wonderful is My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up, which features a more intimate vocal (the Unthanks both have a knack of sounding as if they are singing directly to you) and an upbeat, fiddle-led tune that is as uplifting as it is enjoyable.
Of the covers, Starless stands out. The languid trumpet and clarinet, and the gorgeous vocals – again with that hint of huskiness – truly converts it to an authentic sounding Unthanks piece. Give Away Your Heart is less successful, somehow making this exceptional band sound, for once, rather ordinary.
The spirit of much of this music is markedly sombre, sometimes sinister. The uncompromising seriousness of Gan To The Kye, The Gallowgate Lad and No One Knows I’m Gone heightens the appeal of the voices and the musicianship: the strings doom-laden or film-score lush, the brass accomplished, funereal and the piano grave and calm. The accents – proudly their own – in which the sisters sing also add, in some indefinable way, to the starkness, the this-is-how-we-are nature of many of their songs. Dialect words in Gan To The Kye and My Laddie Sits Ower Late Up are softly stressed, often almost cooed, but resonate.
The dark nature of the material reaches its apotheosis with Close The Coalhouse Door. This long, sparse track towards the album’s end is quite genuinely chilling. With seeming relish, the sisters sing of a coalhouse which has “blood inside” or, later, “splintered piles of bones”. Part of its awfulness lies in the way in which the full story is never given, just the repeated injunction to close that door, to conceal the horrors within.
Apart from a short reprise of the McNally-penned title track this, then, is how the album closes, and the lasting image that it leaves you with. It is a fitting summary of all that is great, and troubling about this unique, uncompromising band.