The opening track on The Bairns is enough to send any self-respecting rock fan sprawling for the eject button. Plaintive piano chords are followed by a female voice with a broad Geordie accent singing about ‘hinnies’ and ‘bairns’, and before barely a minute has passed the unmistakeable sound of a tap shoe is heard measuring out the beat ?
Rachel Unthank & The Winterset, which for this album comprised Rachel Unthank, her younger sister Becky, pianist Belinda O’Hooley and fiddle player Niopha Keegan, first made a stir in folk circles with their 2005 debut Cruel Sister. It was this 2007 follow-up that introduced their hypnotic music to a wider audience, however, leading to a licensing deal with EMI.
It is easy to imagine Rachel Unthank & The Winterset following in the size 9 footsteps of the brooding Seth Lakeman, who, with his contemporary update of traditional music, was the first of the modern folk set to snare a Mercury nomination and a major label deal. With all due respect to Lakeman, there is something far more primal about The Bairns, which is populated by a cast list of grieving mothers, drunken wives, and fallen women. That opening track, the traditional Felton Lonnin sung by Rachel in an impenetrable dialect, gradually draws in the listener with its yearning sense of loss.
The first of four brief interludes (or Lulls) introduces the quartet’s exquisite harmonising, before sister Becky’s softer but still unmistakeably Northumbrian vocals wind their way through Sheila Stewart‘s version of the traditional morality tale Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk.
It is pianist O’Hooley who proves to be the ace in the pack throughout The Bairns. Her background in cabaret (intriguingly, she had once appeared on Stars In Their Eyes impersonating Annie Lennox) adds a left-field edge to the music, with her jazzy piano chords lending a sing-along feel to the live favourite Blue’s Gaen Oot O’The Fashion. O’Hooley also contributes the two original tracks to the album, although the casual listener could quite easily mistake both Blackbird and Whitehorn for traditional songs.
The second half of the album creates an atmosphere so intense that the reluctant rock fan will by now be hooked. A brief snippet of Will Oldham‘s A Minor Place drifts seamlessly into a terrific reading of Robert Wyatt‘s magical Sea Song.
The arrangement of Owen Hand‘s My Donald is stunning, an eight-minute track that moves from a sedate a cappella opening, through a quirky instrumental breakdown, to a quite heart-rending closing harmony section that ranks as one of the most moving vocal performances of the year. The group’s Northumbrian roots are proudly displayed on a version of Terry Conway‘s Fareweel Regality that is driven by Keegan’s fiddle and the quartet’s harmonies.
The traditional Newcastle Lullaby reprises the brief second track, but is extended to over six minutes with an array of treated vocal and piano effects more akin to Sigur R�s than anything from the folk world. In the process, a children’s lullaby is turned into the stuff of nightmares, bringing to a close a remarkable album that is both contemporary and timeless.