Quintessentially English, The Unthank sisters sing olde Folk in a modern setting and from the first sound on Mount The Air you are immersed in an atmosphere of black and white lovers and grainy tragedies.
Like Kate Rusby, The Unthanks authenticity lies in the love they have for the genre and I too love the melancholy beauty, the stories, the glimpses into the past. One fascinating aspect of this kind of music is that songs are not so much written as collected and then interpreted. On the ten minute opening title track Rachel Unthank and husband multi-instrumentalist/producer Adrian McNally have added verses to a traditional song from where they found the album title “I’ll mount the air on swallows wings”.
The tension between strings and trumpet sets the scene for the voice to tell its tale. Both Rachel and Becky Unthank’s voices hang between long instrumental sections of piano, bass and violin and the recurring trumpet and string moods. It’s truly beautiful, voices breathy and strong. The drums move it all along and the individual voices of the sisters sing as one as the theme of the piece builds and builds to a soft end. If Robert Wyatt’s voice had appeared I might have died happy – I’ll just have to make do with commeon-or-garden ecstasy and stay alive for the rest of the album.
Madam is Rachel and piano with moody trumpet and cymbals and another tale of a medieval search for love. “Handsome men are out of fashion, maiden beauty soon decays”. McNallys’ arrangements compliment the tales with stirring strings and dynamic builds into quiet moments and the songs are rather like scenes from a film set in a turbulent past century. In Died For Love, you see the fields, the pregnant waif and the dilemmas of love in hard times.
The single and video Flutter I wrote about yesterday :
Becky’s voice is simply intoxicating in this interesting mix of Folk then and Folk now. I hear that the purists may wonder which way to jump on The Unthanks when they should be jumping for joy at how these girls and their band have made something so new and yet so authentic, something so beautiful yet so raw, something exploding with ideas without leaving tradition behind. Flutter is a wonderful piece of music and the texture of Becky’s voice is woven threads of rich tapestries.
The Magpie, credited to Dave Dodds former member of Red Jasper is an old story about the magpie, apparently when you see one you have to say Devil, Devil I defy thee and spit. Legend has it that Davey Dodds picked up an old woman on the road in his car and on seeing a magpie she shouted out Devil, Devil I defy thee and spat on the floor of his Jaguar.
The/ magpie brings us/ tidings of/ news both fair and/ foul
She’s more/ cunning than the/ raven More/ wise than any/owl
She/ brings us news of the / harvest Of/ barley wheat and/ corn
She/ knows when we’ll go/ to our graves/ How we shall be/ born//
One’s for sorrow/ Two’s for joy/ Three’s for a girl and/ Four’s for a boy/
Five for silver/ Six for gold And/ Seven for a secret/ never told//
Devil devil/ I defy th-/ ee//
Devil devil/ I defy th-/ ee/
Devil devil/ I defy/ thee//
It’s a wonderful piece with three part harmonies (I presume the third is violinist Niopha Keegan). The harmonies are sung over a drone with Becky and Rachel singing individually and then together. The performance, the lyrics and the mood has you believing in the devil, witchcraft, soothsayers, omens and the supernatural with absolutely no resistance from reason.
McNally’s epic piece Foundling is another thematic ten minute saga. One wonders if he listens to Gershwin in his spare time? The subject is a mother giving away her baby not to abandon but to protect, to give the child a life, we observe the child growing into the reality of the world. It’s ambitious and shows the size of McNally’s vision and shows the partnership to be a marriage made in heaven.
Last Lullaby again favours the trumpet, piano and strings. It’s an oft used and effective palette. All this with the voices and the violin create a magical wonderland. It’s like the sensation of breaking through the back of the wardrobe and finding yourself in another world altogether. This is Rachel’s first recorded composition.
Hawthorn is another beautiful piece inspired by Cornish poet Charles Causley:
For Dad, is a short instrumental violin piece by Niopha Keegan that has her in a studio as a little girl with her father and now here she is all grown up playing on one of the great records of 2015.
The Poor Stranger, continues the tradition in Folk music of warnings to unsuspecting young women that might become undone (so to speak) by a nefarious rogue or more simply an insincere lover.
The album closes with the instrumental Waiting and surprisingly stands as out as having a picked acoustic guitar accompanied by the trumpet and piano, along with other stringed instruments, and what sounds like accordion, although accordion isn’t credited on the album. With a lot of different players playing a whole range of instruments and McNally himself playing a few, it’s difficult sometimes to pick out what is actually making the sound. It doesn’t matter, it’s a wonderful blend of organic, ancient and new instruments and sounds that are carefully entwined into what will probably be one of the best albums of the year. There is only one word for this album – magic.