Release Date: Apr 19, 2011
Record label: EMI
Genre(s): Folk, Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Pop, British Folk
The second album from the Unthanks (third if you include the early effort they recorded with a different lineup as Rachel Unthank & the Winterset), Last is a striking fusion of British folk music with austere, arty pop, featuring adventurous arrangements and dynamics that recall acts like Tindersticks, Sufjan Stevens, and American Music Club. The vocals by Rachel Unthank and her sister Becky Unthank are beautiful and executed with an impressive skill and unaffected emotional force, and the spare but powerful arrangements, usually built around piano and a small string section, give this music a subtle majesty, dramatically forceful without grandstanding. The group has gathered a diverse range of material for these sessions, including traditional British folk numbers, songs by contemporary songwriters ranging from Jon Redfern to Tom Waits, and even a cover of King Crimson's "Starless," but the Unthanks manage to make all of it sound like their own work, transforming these ten songs into a seamless whole as the often dour tones of the tunes cohere into something dark yet strangely gorgeous.
Folk music continually reminds us that time moved slower back then. That may not sound like a great revelation, but listening to such music can force us to re-experience this sensation of finely measured moments. This is certainly the case with the latest release by the British band the Unthanks. The songs linger and progress incrementally.
[a]Laura Marling[/a]’s whispery folk may have sidled into the mainstream, but [a]The Unthanks[/a] have been quietly subverting English folk music across three previous albums. [b]‘Last’[/b] retains the intimacy of their previous recordings, but it’s augmented with more orchestral flourishes.There’s no stodge here though, as the album, especially the haunting [b]‘Close The Coalhouse Door’[/b] and covers of [a]Tom Waits[/a] and [b]King Crimson[/b], proves the mix of Rachel and Becky’s voices to be one of the true wonders of 21st-century music. Rachel’s wispy rasp in particular has the ominous beauty of a lick of smoke under the doorframe at 3am.
The Unthanks experiment continues, with an album of gentle melancholia that matches their most elaborate instrumental arrangements to date with a reworking of a startling variety of songs. As ever, their music centres around the delicate, haunting vocals of the Unthank sisters, Rachel and Becky, but Rachel's husband Adrian McNally is playing an increasingly important role as producer, pianist, co-arranger and composer of the gently epic title track. Based around a sturdy, drifting piano theme, it's a thoughtful, sad and lyrical meditation on "why the future doesn't look so great".
The Unthanks are an English folk group led by sisters Rachel and Becky Unthanks. That's their real family name. Though they were born, seven years apart, in the small, Northern English county of Tyne and Wear, they now call Northumberland home. They sing in a regional dialect and with regional accents, and they also organize residential "singing weekends" through their website, traditional holidays that include "singarounds and workshops, short coastal walks, singing in the pub and food to write home about." They're serious about singing.
Its not often that an album written and performed so simply garners note. Predominantly acoustic music is rarely considered original or creative within any avant garde circle. UK sisters Rachel and Becky Unthank along with Niopha Keegan and Adrian McNally have achieved such a feat. Their pastoral sound is full of traditional English folk, chamber elements and a medieval quality that usually irks me to death due to the cliche nature of it all; however, this troupe understands the delicate nature of the medium they’re working in and renders it so gracefully that I honestly have no negative feelings for it.
Brimming with material that is as haunting as it is beautiful. Sid Smith 2011 Self-confessed "miserable buggers", The Unthanks revel in an emotional space that is doleful, downcast and frequently downhearted. Proving once again that sad songs are very often the best, their fourth album is brimming with material that is as haunting as it is beautiful.