I must admit, I’m one of those people who can lose interest when a band makes it big. The Unthanks is an example of this. I started listening to Rachel Unthank and The Winterset a few years back – appreciating a fresh retake on the traditional Northumbrian folk songs I knew so well (Fareweel Regality from The Bairns…just…*sigh*).
When they renamed themselves as The Unthanks, releasing the somber and beautiful ‘Here’s The Tender Coming’, they fell off my radar. Bad show on my part.
So – after many a year, I’m back listening to Rachel and Becky Unthank and the band in their first studio album in four years. This time, Rachel’s husband, band manager and producer Andy McNally is taking the steering wheel in the 10 minute long title track Mount The Air.
Mount The Air is an interesting, complicated track. The first verse is based on a traditional song from Dorset, I’ll Mount The Air on Swallows Wings. The tune is sweet and the lyrics (both traditional and original) work perfectly with the sisters’ soft harmonies. There is an impactful jazz arrangement, which adds uneasiness to the whole track, the jazz minor keys that the horn section follows means the sweet tune is made ever so slightly sinister. As the tune reaches a climax, it is clear McNally has talent in orchestral arrangements, and unlike many jazz arrangements (in my opinion), doesn’t sound messy, but compliments the feel of the track laid out before. The video for the shorter single version can be seen below:
Mount The Air (single version) by The Unthanks
On first hearing the early songs on the album, the band has moved from the primarily folksy sound, although the songs have roots deep in folk. Died For Love nostalgically takes a turn to I Wish, I Wish: a folk song from their early albums, and Magpie will certainly sound familiar.
Foundling – a McNally song inspired by the Foundling museum has a huge orchestral, classical inspired musical backing. The song is a captivating story of a mother singing to the baby she will leave, then the foundling singing to its mother. All helped with crashing symbols, slow strings and climatic trumpet solo.
Last Lullaby has a lovely tune and beautiful lyrics; the piano tinkles throughout the whole song inspiring me to nod off as well – just as the title indicates.
The first part of the album appears to find influence in modal jazz with Miles Davis-esque trumpet and drum beats. It’s a bit too progressive for me if I’m honest. After the 10-minute long Foundling, the songs appear to be more like the band’s previous work; with the tunes more melodic and a more traditional musical arrangement.
Violinist Niopha Keegan pays tribute to her father in For Dad in an instrumental that shows off her skills on the instrument.
My favourite track on the album has to be traditional song The Poor Stranger. It’s sweet melody, 3:4 timing and unassuming folk arrangement is exactly what I enjoy from new folk music.
Whilst some of the tracks are a little stretched for my tastes – the minor keys and the offbeat rhythm makes me uneasy – the whole album is a demonstration of the evolution of The Unthanks.
I prefer the second half of the album by far, but can see how the whole thing demonstrates the talents of Andy McNally and the rest of the band. And the title track certainly impresses.
I think fans will welcome The Unthanks back with open arms with an album like this.
Reviewer: Jess Wearn