Release Date: Mar 23, 2010
Record label: Rough Trade
It could have been commercial suicide. In the wake of a breakthrough success, Rachel Unthank & the Winterset have not only changed the band's name to the more encompassing and curate the Unthanks, they've also made huge personnel changes. It's certainly not a strategy a marketing man would recommend, but this is a band that's always been about the art, not the commercial success.
The intriguing success of the 2007 Rachel Unthank & the Winterset album The Bairns - which apparently came remarkably close to winning the Mercury prize - has a lot to say about the perceptions and misconceptions surrounding music. Rachel and Becky Unthank are steeped in the vibrant folk heritage and rich traditions of the spiritual republic of Northumberland, absorbed at places like the Birtley folk club where the Elliotts, the revered Durham mining family of singers, held court. Since their first album, 2005's Cruel Sister, they have unflinchingly explored these roots but oddly, though, they were never fully embraced by the folk world.
Reviewing Rachel Unthank and the Winterset last year, I argued that the band was misleadingly named. Their success depended not just on Rachel Unthank's often harsh-edged vocals but on the equally fine, light and breathy vocal work of her sister Becky and the boldly unexpected settings. They have clearly taken note. The band has been renamed, while also acquiring a new lineup, with Niopha Keegan continuing on violin and accordion but Rachel's husband, Adrian McNally, taking over on piano and Chris Price moving in on guitar.
Listening to the Unthanks sing the story of a girl working in the coal mines, based on the testimony of Patience Kershaw to a governmental enquiry back in 1842, during a week when 29 miners died in a work related accident in West Virginia shows the timelessness of folk music. While this tune was penned by Frank Higgins in 1969 and was written about a period more than 100 years before, the human cost of extracting coal remains a constant. So is the splendor of hearing two sisters singing in together in harmony.
Here’s the Tender Coming raises the group’s standard higher still. Sid Smith 2009 When confronted with music as splendid as this, it’s easy to be swept along on a wave of purple prose. “Beautiful”, “haunting”, and “beguiling” are all words that spring easily to mind whilst listening to this astonishing record. Yet such is the presence and emotional weight created by the voices of Rachel and Becky Unthank, even such effusive descriptions drastically undersell what this remarkable duo achieve via a distinctive brace of (mostly) traditional folk tunes.
I could be uninformed, but I can’t think of many folk records that have benefited from an hour-long running time, or multiple tracks surging past the eight minute mark. The genre has always existed in a sparse, naturalistic world – and the albums that have pulled off the extended style well (Ys and The Cloud of Unknowing come to mind) are anything but traditional efforts. Enter The Unthanks, a surprisingly traditional British folk group – its nucleus being two, similarly voiced sisters (Rachel and Becky Unthank respectively) equipped with a variety of baroque-era instruments.