Friday, 6 February 2015


CD Review

Mount The Air

There is something refreshingly grounded and earthy about sister act The Unthanks. They have made a career out of successfully fusing a contemporary sound which retains a link to the traditional and which seems as strong as the chains found on the shipyards they often sing of.

Rachel and Becky Unthank
This said, with Rachel and Becky's new album Mount the Air the link seems a little more tenuous. One of the interesting aspects of the band is the folk arena seems to openly embrace them and yet, whether intentionally or consequentially, they seem to stretch the definitions and boundaries of what many consider to be folk music. And, if you read the blurb on their website they, in their own words, don't put their feet firmly down in the folk camp.
Mount the Air has been two years in the making which is about the standard for most folk musician/bands, Martin Simpson admits he likes to put an album out about every two years; however it is their first studio album for four years and is essentially an album of ballads.
If you are looking for what many would recognise as traditional folk then you are delving in the wrong place. However, this aside and regardless of any discussions about what is or isn't folk, The Unthanks do make intriguing albums which rely on fascinating lyrics gently coloured by the tunes they compose, which are always complimentary and never intrusive.
The opening and title track is a good example with its melancholic and slow jazz-style trumpet introduction. One of the many things which stand out about the sisters' style is their Northern singing encompasses stories of humanity and the human condition and they have never been tempted to sing in this faux Americana accent which so many English folk singers do.
Mount the Air does have a feel of the soundtrack to a KenLoach film. That unadorned sort of everdayness which we can't quite put our finger on but know it when we hear it.
Becky Unthank
The breathiness of the singing is also understated and emotional without being self -pitying or indulgent.
This is followed by an even mellower ballad Madam, which is given an ominous feel by the single notes picked out precisely on the piano with the occasional wave of the cymbal crashing over them.
You would never know it but by their own admission, this album was put together in a "makeshift" studio and is probably the most hands on album they have made to date.
It has been produced and written by pianist and husband of Rachel, Adrian McNally. While Becky has been involved in writing with him.
The melancholic theme continues with Died for Love and as you listen to the album you get a feeling that rather than listening to separate songs which have been collected to make the disc, each track is part of a whole. There is a very similar feel to each song so much so you could almost just call it Mount the Air and perform it as one single, operatic-style piece. It is pretty close to a concept album.
Rachel Unthank
There isn't a great deal of traditional folk in this album, they have gone for the atmospheric and sometimes the big sound but of course what keeps it grounded are the Unthanks singing.
Becky's voice on Flutter is sensuous almost other-worldly and the lyrics, on several tracks, are a vocal example of minimalism.
This is followed by Magpie which does have a chant feel to it with a drone underneath, the well-known counting rhyme and is perhaps the most traditional sounding of all the tracks.
Foundling has something of a Disney feel to it, with the way it sweeps in and you can almost see the animated characters caught up in a dance but again there is that sinister undertone and then in come the edgy lyrics this time sung by Rachel, this is one of two tracks on the album which is more than 10 minutes long. It's a song where if you played it in isolation to someone who didn't know about The Unthanks, it's unlikely they would place it in the folk music camp.
Following on from this, Last Lullaby comes in with the feeling of an adagio and is a lovely song, beautifully constructed with the very level singing keeping that peaceful resonance that all the tracks have. The slightly smoky-voiced singing of Hawthorn, accented by the lone trumpet playing of Tom Arthurs, brings the melancholia back by the bucket load.
The New Album
For Dad, is the Celtic strand in the album and the opening which features a conversation between what could be a father and his daughter is open to interpretation by the listener. This aside, it is a beautiful piece of instrumental music with the fiddle playing being wonderfully expressive.
Perhaps the lightest piece on the album is The Poor Stranger. It does have a nursery rhyme feel, the sort of song you would sing to a child while tucking them up in bed at night.
The album finishes with Waiting which also has a slightly lighter feeling where its sound is almost a reprise of all the other tracks to take the album out on a type of summing up.
This is one of those albums which could well add even more fuel to the "What is and isn't folk music?" debate. It may well be pored over my post-modernists but the only thing to say with certainty is that it's not traditional, is it folk? You decide.

Mount the Air is released on February 9 on their own label RabbleRouser

The Unthanks will be playing at the Albert Hall, Nottingham, February 27. The show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £21.45 including booking fee. The following month on Sunday March 8 the sisters play Warwick Arts Centre. The show starts 7.30pm and tickets are £19.

The Mike Harding Folk Show

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