It may be four years since The Unthanks released an album proper (2011’s Last), but the groundbreaking Northumbrian sisters and their band could hardly be accused of twiddling their thumbs idly in the meantime. As well as their hugely enjoyable Diversions series (encompassing interpretations of the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and The Johnsons, a collaboration with the Brighouse & Rastrick brass band and a film soundtrack for Songs From The Shipyard), they’ve also found time to work with other musicians ranging from fellow Geordie Sting to the decidedly unfolky Adrian Utley of Portishead.
Mount The Air absorbs the influences of all these artists and others to deliver a record that continues The Unthanks’ journey away from the traditional north-east folk of their earlier albums towards a style that’s uniquely their own. It’s hard to think of another group anywhere who are creating music quite like this; still grounded in the sounds and spirit of their native region yet compositionally on a different planet to the pub back room strums and ceilidh jigs knocked out by most of their contemporaries.
The opening title track sets the tone immediately. Clocking in at over 10 minutes, it is built around the evocative trumpet of Tom Arthurs, which dips gracefully in and out of what is more of a short musical suite than a song. The voices of the Unthanks sisters are just one of several instruments, with the overall mood and textures sometime recalling Robert Wyatt’s Rock Bottom. It’s confident, unhurried and meticulously crafted, illustrating the growing creative leadership of multi-instrumentalist and arranger Adrian McNally and a far cry from The Bairns or Here’s The Tender Coming.
Flutter is another bold step forward – with its menacing, cinematic strings and loping trip-hop beat, it would sit very comfortably on the first two Portishead albums, with Becky Unthank doing a sterling Beth Gibbons turn. The portentous Magpie showcases Becky & Rachel’s established harmonic strengths over a stark, frugal drone , while Foundling, inspired by Thomas Corum’s foundling centre for unwanted children, is another 10 minute plus epic, more conventional in structure than the freeform title track but no less compelling.
It’s not all experimentation – for example, Last Lullaby is the kind of blissfully pretty, gossamer ballad The Unthanks have specialised in throughout their career. It could be argued that Rachel & Becky’s voices are less centre stage on Mount The Air than on their previous records, simply because of the wealth of sonic ideas being explored. Yet the sisters’ ability to sound alternately joyous, yearning, doom-laden and heartbreaking is as captivating as ever, just rather more sparingly deployed.
A couple of tracks don’t quite work; For Dad, which begins with a child’s mawkish microphone babbling before a meandering fiddle leads the song nowhere in particular; and the closing track Waiting, another instrumental, which brings the album to a pleasantly lilting but unremarkable end. But these are small criticisms. While most folk acts are content to simply keep churning out album after album of tried and tested traditional standards or self-penned campfire sing-alongs, The Unthanks are stretching the parameters of their genre with an ambition that’s rarely been heard before.