Release Date: Feb 17, 2015
Record label: Rabble Rouser Records
Genre(s): Folk, Pop/Rock
Mournful, elegant, melancholy, and mysterious, the Northumbrian family act is most certainly not a party band; rather their singular blend of traditional folk and jazz-tinged, Celtic-infused pop is tailor-made for those for whom soft rolls of thunder and deep grey skies are a balm to the cruel tempo of the extroverted life. Fresh off of a trio of excellent, largely conceptual live recordings that found the Unthanks taking on the songs of Antony & the Johnsons and Robert Wyatt, collaborating with the Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, and exploring the region's rich tradition of seafaring, the group returns with their first studio effort since 2011's Last. Like its predecessor, Mount the Air is a dark storeroom of soft, piano-led balladry peppered with tasteful flourishes of upright bass, soft brush work, and spectral horns and strings, but it's also a far more ambitious outing, sporting two epic ten-minute pieces that flirt with experimental ambient pop grandeur.
It may be four years since The Unthanks released an album proper (2011’s Last), but the groundbreaking Northumbrian sisters and their band could hardly be accused of twiddling their thumbs idly in the meantime. As well as their hugely enjoyable Diversions series (encompassing interpretations of the songs of Robert Wyatt and Antony and The Johnsons, a collaboration with the Brighouse & Rastrick brass band and a film soundtrack for Songs From The Shipyard), they’ve also found time to work with other musicians ranging from fellow Geordie Sting to the decidedly unfolky Adrian Utley of Portishead. Mount The Air absorbs the influences of all these artists and others to deliver a record that continues The Unthanks’ journey away from the traditional north-east folk of their earlier albums towards a style that’s uniquely their own.
It’s been four years since The Unthanks released a full studio album, but it’s certainly not been a quiet period for the group. Three records have been released under the Diversions heading – one tackling the songs of Antony & The Johnsons and Robert Wyatt, one a collaboration with The Brighouse and Rastrick Brass Band, and the third a soundtrack to a film on the history of shipyards in their native north-east. Hardly a quiet period then, and hardly what most bands do with a bit of down time between albums - but The Unthanks have never been your typical band.
A series of projects released as the Diversions series has ensured The Unthanks have remained a near-constant presence in the minds of their many admirers, despite not having released an album proper since 2011’s Last. The impression here is that, despite the modest banner, those diversions may have been instrumental in The Unthanks’ development. The magical opening title track suggests that their extra-curricular embrace of Robert Wyatt’s songs encouraged the group to let their jazzier impulses run their course; the key is that it feels like a natural development.
After three live albums of so-called Diversions – including an inventive treatment of songs by Robert Wyatt and Antony & the Johnsons, and a rousing brass band collaboration – the Unthanks release their first studio album in four years. This is a return to the gentle melancholia of Last, and while there are fine vocals from the Unthank sisters, the dominant figure is Rachel’s husband, Adrian McNally, who plays keyboards and percussion, and produced and wrote much of the music. The album starts with the lengthy title track, in which a traditional melody is matched with an elaborate wash of piano, strings and drifting, jazz-influenced trumpet work from Tom Arthurs, before building to a gently epic finale.
The Tyneside group have cut a singular path in modern folk, melding the immaculate sibling vocals of Rachel and Becky Unthank with neoclassical string arrangements, and drawing material from local tradition and such unlikely sources as King Crimson. Mount the Air maintains the approach to less winning effect. Two 10-minute pieces relegate song and vocals to second place behind ambitious but lumbering orchestration – producer Adrian McNally is, alas, no Gil Evans.