Maxïmo Park’s Paul Smith and Rachel Unthank of The Unthanks pair up for a work containing moments of rare beauty which deserves to find a wide audience
When it comes to unlikely pairings, that of Paul Smith and Rachel Unthank is probably pretty high up there. One is the be-hatted frontman of indie superstars Maxïmo Park, a famously energetic live performer often found throwing shapes on an arena stage. The other is a musician best known for her quiet, unobtrusive work with her sister, beloved of a fiercely loyal but relatively small audience.
As Nowhere And Everywhere shows though, Unthank : Smith have more in common than meets the eye. Inspired by a meeting backstage at a gig by the Africa Express collective, their collaboration is far more closer to The Unthanks‘ work than it is Maxïmo Park. Yet Smith, who has been a long term fan of folk music, fits perfectly into this sound, and his deep baritone contrasts perfectly with Unthanks’ voice, resulting in some beautiful harmoni es.
It’s an album steeped in the tradition of the North-East (there’s even a producer credit for David Brewis of Sunderland’s Field Music). The arrangements are sparse and delicate, with the focus rightly on the two vocalists. Opening track Captain Bover is an traditional unaccompanied a cappella track, telling the tale of the notorious leader of a brutal press gang on the Tyne. There’s an almost sea-shanty feel to the song, setting the tone for the rest of the album nicely.
As you may expect, this is very much traditional folk, paying tribute to a centuries-old art form. Tracks like The Natural Urge though update the folk song in a subtle way – the gentle guitar and harmonium providing the perfect accompaniment for Smith and Unthanks’ vocals. That song is written by Smith (and is far away from Maxïmo Park as you can imagine), and it’s followed by Seven Tears, a stark, minimal Unthank original where the low hum of a clarinet is the only instrument backing up the two vocalists.
There’s a mix of covers and original material throughout Nowhere And Everywhere, although if you weren’t familiar with the source material, you’d be hard pushed to guess which was which. Lord Bateman, one of the longest tracks on the record at six and a half minutes, reworks Chris Wood‘s original into a dramatic swirl of a song. There’s even a couple of poems reworked into folk songs, including album highlight What Maks Makems, about shipbuilding in Sunderland, which turns into a stirring folk ballad.
There’s only a couple of tracks which feel a bit drawn out – O Mary Will You Go is undeniably beautiful, but at nearly eight minutes long it almost outstays its welcome, while some may find the unrelentingly downbeat atmosphere a bit too bleak for their tastes. Yet although this is undoubtedly a niche record, the sound of Smith and Unthank singing together is always a spine-tingling delight. Unthank : Smith’s Nowhere And Everywhere is an album containing moments of rare beauty which deserves to find a wide audience.