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The Unthanks

+ {Rachel Unthank & The Winterset}

With an ear for Northern-based folk and the heritage that comes with it, Ryton, Gateshead-born lass, RACHEL UNTHANK (a singer and part cellist) formed The Winterset with her younger sister Becky (vocals), Stars In Their Eyes winner Belinda O’Hooley (on piano) and Jackie Oates (sister of JIM MORAY – on viola and vocals). The aforementioned siblings were brought up by a traditional folk-loving family, more likely to play music by the singing STEWART clan (Sheila, Belle, etc.) than their neo-folk counterparts.
Guided by producer/guitarist/Rachel’s future hubby, Adrian McNally (plus sound engineer Oliver Knight) and not forsaking her wispy Geordie accent, the group’s debut set, CRUEL SISTER (2005) {*7}, was released to critical appraisal and a worthy live promotion. Mojo’s Folk Album Of The Year was the toast of many a forlorn, post SANDY DENNY/JUDIE TZUKE! fan, its best songs stemming from the jazzy, piano-led opener `On A Monday Morning’ (penned by CYRIL TAWNEY), DAVE GOULDER’s `January Man’, NICK DRAKE’s `Riverman’, MATT McGINN’s `Troubled Waters’ and ALEX GLASGOW’s doleful `Twenty Long Weeks’. With many a traditional song sparsely unaccompanied (`Fair Rosamund’, `The Fair Flower Of Northumberland’ and `Rap Her To Bank’ included), the young Rachel and Co were more than competent to rearrange storytelling folklorist fruits as `Cruel Sister’ (all 8+ minutes of it!) and Keelers/Jim Mageean fave, `John Dead’.
Just as the girls were finding their feet (the sisters were also useful clog-dancers!), one of them, JACKIE OATES, decided to branch out on her own. Replacement, Anglo-Irish fiddler Niopha Keegan, was duly in place for their sophomore set, THE BAIRNS (2007) {*7}. Accompanied at times by an full orchestra, an eclectic array of outside songwriting sources came by way of JOHNNY HANDLE’s `Felton Lonnin’, BELLE STEWART’s `Blue Bleezing Blind Drunk’, ROBERT WYATT’s `Sea Song’, OWEN HAND’s `My Donald’ and WILL OLDHAM/Bonnie Prince Billy’s short ’n’sweet `A Minor Place’. The multi-talented O’Hooley presented two of her own compositions, `Blackbird’ and `Whitethorn’, which stood tall alongside trad cues like `I Wish’ and `Ma Bonny Lad’ and Northern-penned `Can’t Stop It Raining’ (Richard Scott) and `Fareweel Regality’ (Terry Conway). A winner of numerous Folk awards, the set was also nominated for the illustrious Mercury Music Prize early the following year.
A slight adjustment of their moniker was a chancy decision to make, but as The UNTHANKS, Rachel and Becky were hardly straying too far from their tried and tested formula. Rounded off by a bigger band sound (including Niopha, plus Adrian McNally and Chris Price), HERE’S THE TENDER COMING (2009) {*7} was another treasure of an album, featuring half trad and half cover songs. Of the former bunch, the beautiful `Annachie Gordon’ and the equally lengthy title track came off best, while the richness of the covers were heightened by ANNE BRIGGS’ `Living By The Water’, LAL WATERSON’s `As First She Starts’, LIZZIE HIGGINS’ `The Testimony Of Patience Kershaw’ and EWAN MacCOLL’s `Nobody Knew She Was There’.
Taking a diverse range of ballads and songs from unusual sources (their brassy take of KING CRIMSON’s `Starless’ sticks out a mile), LAST (2011) {*8} brought the lasses joyously up to date despite the use of Northern-based sourced material; `Gan To The Kye’ and `The Gallowgate Lad’ were complemented by ALEX GLASGOW’s `Close The Coalhouse Door’, TOM WAITS’ `No One Knows I’m Gone’ and JON REDFERN’s `Give Away Your Heart’ (Becky had featured on Jon’s 2008 album `What Else But Love?’). The UNTHANKS had to er, thank recent recruit McNally for the title track.
Recorded in concert the previous December (8th and 9th) at Islington’s Union Chapel, homage was paid to two of avant-pop music’s more diverse and discerning artists by way of THE SONGS OF ROBERT WYATT AND ANTONY & THE JOHNSONS (2011) {*7}. Released as the inaugural Vol.1 of the “Diversions” series, Rachel and Co complemented their hero’s tunes in fine fettle. A project devised by Adrian as a stop-gap idea, one can certainly highlight their interpretations of Antony Hegarty’s `Bird Guhl’ and `Spiralling’, while one could cherry-pick from WYATT’s Rastrick Brass Band-assisted `Dondestan’, `Free Will And Testament’ and `Sea Song’. Wot no `Shipbuilding’? – read on.
Volume 2 in the series, THE UNTHANKS WITH BRIGHOUSE AND RASTRICK BRASS BAND {*8} was taken from other concerts, mainly between Durham Cathedral and London’s Barbican Hall. Delivered in July 2012, a year to the day it was recorded, reviews were healthy and almost exultant, the combination of both parties garnering support from outsider folk traces; the boldest readings coming via `The King Of Rome’, `My Lagan Love’ and `The Father’s Suite’.
While “Diversions Vol.3”, SONGS FROM THE SHIPYARDS (2012) {*7}, had been premiered live as far back as the previous February, the decision to take this documentary work into the studio was indeed a canny decision. Marked by the sad songs of ALEX GLASGOW, ARCHIE FISHER, JOHNNY HANDLE, PETER BELLAMY, JOHN TAMS, JEZ LOWE and Graeme Miles (plus of course, WYATT’s `Shipbuilding’), the concept was a stark reminder to just how tough it was for the Northern panel-beaters and riveters. 3 volumes in the space of 12 months, bringing to life the trials and tribulations of everyday working people was pure folk history at its most poignant, the award-winning UNTHANKS now the toast of their North-East community. To obtain the full scope of the set, the Richard Fenwick film brought a certain life into songs such as `The Romantic Tees’, `Big Steamer’ and `Monkey Dung Man’. Meanwhile, The UNTHANKS were gearing themselves up to help record yet another piece of Geordie history in STING’s “The Last Ship” (2013).
As weightless, airborne and cosmic as the title suggested, MOUNT THE AIR (2015) {*8} was The UNTHANKS’ majestic “comeback” album. Worthy of their inaugural Top 30 spot, British folk should be proud they’d such eloquent ambassadors to represent a genre possibly lost to pop. Gothic and melancholy overtones draw the listener into their picturesque days of yore, when it seemed the English countryside was free of plastic bags and abandoned trolleys. Opening with an exceptional full 10-minute rendition of the title track/single, Rachel and Becky take risks in a world of press-play-fast-forward, but backed by layers of soft-jazz strings and horns, they hit their stride. Sad-core folk that’ll pull one’s heartstrings until they “greet” blood, the other lengthy piece, `Foundling’, was Adrian McNally’s delicate and precious offering; he and Becky also trifle with trip-hop on `Flutter’. In among capturing the sentimentality of a handful of trad pieces (`Madam’, `Died For Love’ and `The Poor Stranger’), many kids-at-heart might recognise `Magpie’, while all the right elements of a Celtic mood go into Chris Price and Adrian’s closing, Unthanks-less instrumental `Waiting’.
Wherever and whatever The UNTHANKS turned over in the studio was always a treasure to behold; “Dimensions Vol.4”: THE SONGS AND POEMS OF MOLLY DRAKE (2017) {*8} was no exception to the rule. The Molly in question was indeed the underwritten mother of the late, great NICK DRAKE and his actress sister Gabrielle, who proffered her distinguished spoken words on a handful of her mother’s nostalgic poems. Northumbrian folk music had possibly a late entry into their canon by way of the unsinkable Molly; and that was certainly secured for posterity by Rachel and Becky (and not forgetting Adrian McNally’s piano) on the masterful opener `What Can A Song Do To You?’; plus others `How Wild The Wind Blows’, `Bird In The Blue’, `The Road To The Stars’ and the 7-minute finale, `The First Day’.
The UNTHANKS trio were never short of passionate themes, and in the subsequent song cycle (originally issued as a separate EPs in November 2018), the eloquent northern sisters of misery proved beyond doubt their worth among the folk fraternity. The triumvirate album in question, LINES: Parts One, Two & Three {*7}, was dispatched the following February.
Part One, “Lillian Bilocca” – a bleak eponymous soliloquy concerning the Hull Triple Trawler Disaster of 1968 – featured the words of acclaimed actress Maxine Peake on the very brittle `A Whistling Woman’ and `The Sea Is A Woman’. Part Two, meanwhile, “World War One” – an adaptation of poems and letters spearheaded by the 7-minute `Roland And Vera’ (showcasing Sam Lee) was pursued by the uplifting `Everyone Sang’ and the heart-wrenching `War Film’. Last but not least, the slightly longish “Emily Bronte” – with 10 poems marking the famous author’s 200th birthday and commissioned by the Bronte Society – possessed some beautiful nightfall song adaptations for 5 octave cabinet piano, including `The Night Is Darkening Round Me’, `Deep Deep Down In The Silent Grave’ and `Lines’.
© MC Strong GFD2 / rev-up MCS Nov2013-Jun2019

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